Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Police Chief’s Right to Search Employee’s Text Messages

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a California police chief’s actions in searching and reading private (in this case, sexually explicit) texts from an employee is justified and reasonable.

Supreme Court building


It might be a landmark decision, but privacy advocates aren’t going to like it. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an Ontario, CA police chief did not violate the 4th amendment (unreasonable search) in reading his employee’s sexually explicit text messages.

The employee used a device supplied by his employer, which is the only reason the case went to court. Apparently, only a tiny percentage of the texts sent and received by the Ontario police officers were work-related, and the chief decided to do some investigation to see if his workers were slacking off. He discovered a whole mess of sexually explicit communication between Sgt. Jeff Quon and a variety of lady friends.

I should also mention at this point that the device in question is repeatedly referred to as a pager. This brings to mind both the technologically backward and likely underfunded nature of local police equipment, and Liz Lemon’s sometime-boyfriend Dennis on 30 Rock (the “Beeper King” who utters the immortal protestation in defense of beepers: “Technology is cyclical!”). That’s only tangentially related, but still: pagers?

The court ruled, overturning a prior decision, that the chief’s search did not violate the 4th amendment. Said Justice Kennedy, because the search “was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and because it was
not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable.” This has wide-reaching implications for every public employee in the country–better start monitoring your computers and phones, because your employer is now legally allowed to search your stuff if he has a “legitimate work-related purpose.”

What do you guys think? A blow for personal privacy? Or does Sgt. Quon deserve it (really, who sexts on a work-provided pager? Or on a pager?)?

Photo by dbaron.


Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one–you’ll have to do the legwork yourself).


About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.