The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that the city of Ontario, Calif., did not violate a police officer’s Fourth Amendment rights when it searched his work pager for text messages.
The case, Quon v. City of Onatrio, involved Onatrio SWAT sergeant Jeff Quon who charged that the city violated his rights by reviewed sexually explicit texts on his work pager while trying to investigate why Quon was exceeding his texting limit on his work pager.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city violated Quon’s right to not be subject to unreasonable search and seizure by reviewing a transcript of his texts. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy but that certain warrantless searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion:
“Even if he could assume some level of privacy would inhere in his messages, it would not have been reasonable for Quon to conclude that his messages were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny. Quon was told that his messages were subject to auditing. As a law enforcement officer, he would or should have known that his actions were likely to come under legal scrutiny, and that this might entail an analysis of his on-the-job communications.”
Kennedy also pointed out that the court was ruling narrowly in this case because it did not want to overreach when ruling on an issue related to new communication technology.
“The Court must proceed with care when considering the whole concept of privacy expectations in communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications,” Kennedy wrote.