Supreme Court Rules Against Officers in Privacy Case

By Teresa Anderson

The city obtained the transcripts from Arch Wireless and then began an audit. In the case of Quon, the city found that he had exceeded his monthly character allotment by an average of 15,000 characters. The chief turned the transcripts of Quon’s texts over to internal affairs, which launched its own investigation. Internal affairs found that Quon frequently sent personal messages to his wife and to his girlfriend. These messages were often sexually explicit.

Quon, his wife, and his girlfriend sued the city claiming that it had violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Quon argued that he had an expectation of privacy in sending and receiving the text messages. The city argued that its policy regarding employee use of city equipment made it clear that employees had no expectation of privacy when using city computer systems.

The city requested summary judgment—a hearing based on the facts of a case, without a trial. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the summary judgment. Quon appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned the district court’s decision. The appeals court found that the city’s formal policy was sound but that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy because of Duke’s informal policy. According to the court, after Duke made it clear that he would not audit the messages as long as the officers paid for the overages, Quon could reasonably expect that his messages would remain private.

The court also noted that had the city wanted to determine whether the officers needed a higher character allotment, there were several other options for achieving this goal. For example, the city could have warned the officers that an audit would be held the next month and that they should send and receive only work-related messages. The court also suggested that the city could have said that it would view transcripts of officers’ messages after the officers had a chance to redact any personal communication.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s disagreed with the appellate ruling, finding that the police department did not violate Quon’s Fourth Amendment rights because the department read the text messages for noninvestigatory, work-related purposes. The Court noted that the department sought to ensure that officers were not being forced to pay for work-related texts and the department was not footing the bill for personal communications. In the written opinion of the case, the Court ruled that “reviewing the transcripts was an efficient and expedient way to determine whether either of these factors caused Quon’s overages.”

The Court did not rule on whether Quon had an expectation of privacy. Instead, the Court noted that even assuming that a right to privacy existed in the case, the search was still reasonable under the law. The Court cautioned about reading too much into its privacy discussion. “Prudence counsels caution before the facts in this case are used to establish far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations of employees using employer-provided communication devices,” wrote the Court. “Rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission are evident not just in the technology itself, but in what society accepts as proper behavior.”

♦ Photo of U.S. Supreme Court by laura padgett/Flickr

City of Ontario v Quon.pdf181.32 KB


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