US Supreme Court Holds State Employer May Investigate Employees’ Electronically Stored Data When Search is Legitimately Work-Related
The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of Ontario v. Quan, wherein a police officer brought suit against his police department for invasion of privacy. The police department had issued texting/paging devices to its officers for the purpose of work-related use. All of the officers were allotted a predetermined amount of text messages and/or data transfer, which was to be paid by the employer. Anything transferred above that which was allowed would be the responsibility of the officer personally.
After an audit of the cellular bills showed many officers were exceeding the allotted messaging allowance, the police department decided to conduct an investigation into whether or not the employee allowance needed to be raised. The purpose of the search was to ensure that officers were not being charged for work-related use. In conducting the investigation, the police department contacted the text-messaging carrier and sought a print-out of the officers’ monthly messaging statements, including the actual messages which were sent.
Upon investigation, it was determined that one of the officers had used his messaging device for personal and improper use. Many of the messages sent and/or received from his device were sexual in nature. Following confrontation by his superiors, the officer brought this instant action claiming the police department breached his reasonable expectation of privacy and that the investigation conducted should have required a search warrant.
The Court held that the officer did in fact have a legitimate privacy interest in his text messages, despite the device being work-related. Nevertheless, the search conducted was not intended for any disciplinary or criminal purpose, but rather was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose; to ensure officers were not being charged personally for work-related use. The Court held the search legal under the “special needs” exception of the warrant requirement; The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that, in certain limited circumstances, the government's need to discover latent or hidden conditions, or to prevent their development, is sufficiently compelling to justify the intrusion on privacy entailed by conducting a search without any measure of individualized suspicion.
It is important to note that the Supreme Court’s decision applies to State employers and not necessarily private ones. In other words, the Court’s decision does not speak to the rights of a private employer to monitor e-mails, text-messaging, etc., from work issued devices. Further, the Court declined to comment on what a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” should be in this modern world of ever changing technology, choosing rather to deal with the issues of the case at bar and saving a broad determination for another day.