Government Employee Privacy Rights

Government Employee Privacy Rights

The  Supreme Court will decide whether a police officer in California has the right to prevent his bosses from reviewing text messages he sent from a department-issued pager.

Like many employers, the City of Ontario has its employees sign agreements acknowledging that they may not use its computers for personal matters, and have no expectation of privacy in any messages sent.  When the pagers were issued, the department stated that the email policy covered the pagers, too.  But a different message was conveyed by the department, which told Sergeant Quon and his peers that they could use the pagers for 25,000 characters per month; they would be charged for messages exceeding that limit.  Quon exceeded the message limit and paid for the overage.swat-cop-150x150

The department decided that the text volume may indicate that some employees were wasting time, and ordered an audit, including transcripts, of the messages.  Quon and another officer objected when the department released the transcripts, showing that Quon sent sexually explicit messages to his wife and another woman.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the employees had a reasonable expectation that the messages would remain private, given the department’s earlier treatment of pager use.

The Supreme Court may choose to issue a narrow ruling, limited to employers with policies like that of Ontario.  On the other hand, it may broaden its discussion of employee privacy rights in general, or government employees as a group.  Part of the lower court’s decision related to the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, covering unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Fourth Amendment applies to federal and state governments, not to private employers.

Ordinarily decisions in cases accepted at this point are issued by the end of the term, in June.  The case is Quon v. City of Ontario.  It’s discussed at the SCOTUS blog, whose wiki also has links to the briefs.

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