The Single SCOTUS 4th Amendment Case in 2010

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on March 8, 2011

In Ontario v. Quon, 130 S. Ct. 2610 (2010), the Supreme Court addressed whether a police officer has a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages transmitted while on-duty through work-issued pagers and whether the search of the text messages violated the officer’s Fourth Amendment rights.  In a 9-0 opinion, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that the search was reasonable and did not violate the officer’s Fourth Amendment Rights.  In the police department, officers had pagers with the capability of sending and receiving text messages.  The officer was told that his text messages were subject to auditing, and he signed a computer usage policy, which reserved the right to monitor all network activities.

Because some members were exceeding the monthly text message limit, the department investigated whether the limit should be increased.  During the investigation, the department discovered that many of the officer’s messages were not work related.  The officer was disciplined for violated departmental rules.  Multiple officers filed suit, alleging that their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  The Supreme Court held that the department’s search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and not excessive in scope.

The Court held that, even assuming the officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy, a warrantless search, during an investigation of work-related misconduct, is permissible if (1) justified at its inception, (2) reasonably related to the objectives of the search, and (3) not excessively intrusive under the circumstances.  The Court found that the search was (1) justified at its inception because it was ordered for the non-investigatory purpose of determining whether to increase the monthly text message limits, (2) reasonably related to the objectives of the search, and (3) not excessive because the department only reviewed messages for the months that exceeded the limit.

The concurring opinion stated that a police officer should understand that all work-related actions are subject to public and legal scrutiny.

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March 8, 2011 at 9:57 am

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