Supreme Court Finds Search Of Employees' Text Messages Was Reasonable

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A police department's search of the transcripts of its employees' text messages was reasonable and did not violate the employees' Fourth Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 17, reversing a ruling by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.  Citing the principles of O'Connor v. Ortega (480 U.S. 709, 717 [1987]), the court found that the transcript search was reasonable "because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope" (City of Ontario, California, et al. v. Jeff Quon, et al., No. 08-1332, U.S. Sup.).

The search occurred in 2002 as part of an audit of text messaging costs incurred by the employees of the Ontario Police Department in California.  Police Chief Lloyd Scharf and other department personnel looked at transcripts of text messages sent by its employees via pagers issued by the City of Ontario to determine whether their contractual character limit with Arch Wireless Operating Co. was sufficient and to make sure that the department was not unduly paying for extensive personal communications.  They learned that Sgt. Jeff Quon, his wife and two other department employees had sent and received numerous personal text messages, many of which were sexual in nature.  The identified texters sued the city, the Police Department, Scharf and others in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in February 2003, claiming violations of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court ruled that Arch had properly released the transcripts and that although the police officers had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their messages based on the department's privacy policy with regard to the pagers, the defendants were not liable for the search because they intended to uncover possible misconduct.  The Ninth Circuit reversed in June 2008, finding that Arch had violated the SCA and that the transcript search was unreasonable.  The city, Police Department and Scharf petitioned the high court.

The high court held that the department's review of the transcripts "was an efficient and expedient way" to determine the nature of the message overages that Quon had incurred on his account, holding that the search was not "excessively intrusive" and was limited in its scope by searching only two months' worth of messages.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the court's opinion, with Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia offering brief concurring opinions on some of the nuances of and applications of O'Connor.

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