The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a police department did not violate the constitutional rights of police officers when it read through their text messages. The review of the text messages did not violate the Fourth Amendment, according to the ruling, because it was undertaken for work-related purposes and was not excessive in scope. The Court declined to rule on whether the officers had an expectation of privacy.
In October 2001, the city of Ontario, California, contracted with Arch Wireless to provide a wireless text-messaging service for police. The city did not write a specific text-messaging policy but instead referred to its existing policy, which stated that all city-owned computers and electronic devices were to be used for city business only. The use of such equipment for personal reasons was explicitly prohibited.
A year before they had access to the text-messaging service, police officers signed a form acknowledging that they had no expectation of privacy when they used the city’s computer systems. When the text-messaging system was provided to the officers, city officials noted that the text messages were considered e-mail and were, therefore, public information and would be subject to auditing by the city.
Under the city’s contract with Arch Wireless, each text-messaging account was limited to 25,000 characters a month. After an account reached this limit, the city was required to pay additional charges. Lieutenant Steve Duke was in charge of the city’s contract and responsible for securing payment for those accounts that exceeded the character limit. If an employee used more than the allotted characters, Duke would ask the employee to write a check for the extra amount. Duke told the officers that they had to pay the overages, or the city would audit the accounts to ensure that all the correspondence was work related.
One of the officers, Jeff Quon, regularly exceeded the character limit for his account. Quon paid for the overages each time. In a meeting held in August 2002, Duke announced that he was tired of “being a bill collector” in regards to the text-messaging accounts. The chief of police told Duke to audit the transcripts of the accounts to determine if the messages were work related. The chief noted that if all of the texts were used for city business, the police needed to consider increasing the amount of characters allowed per person.