Supreme Court to hear text message privacy case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether privacy rights covered a worker’s personal text message on employer-owned equipment, hearing a case about a police officer who sent sexually explicit messages from his department-issued pager.

Czech Republic's Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek sends a text message during the Nabucco Summit in Parliament in Budapest January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Karoly Arvai

The justices agreed to review a ruling by a federal appeals court in California that reading the text messages sent on devices provided by the employer violated the worker’s privacy rights and amounted to an “unreasonable search” barred by the U.S. Constitution.

The city appealed to the Supreme Court, saying employers typically have policies in place establishing that workers have no expectation of privacy in electronic communications on employer-owned equipment.

As computers, cell phones and text messages devices have becoming standard equipment in the workplace, most employers have told their workers their use of the devices can be monitored. The Supreme Court could decide how much privacy workers have when using such devices.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in the spring, with a decision likely by the end of June.

The case from Ontario, California, stemmed from a lawsuit by police department SWAT team Sergeant Jeff Quon and three others who sued the department and the police chief who read the text messages.

Quon said the police chief violated his privacy rights and those with whom he sent the messages -- fellow Sergeant Steve Trujillo, Dispatcher April Florio, who was his girlfriend, and his wife Jerilyn Quon.

The department said Quon used his paper to exchange hundreds of personal messages, many of them sexually explicit.

He sent the messages despite signing a city policy that allows only limited personal use of employer-owned electronic equipment and that warns them not to expect any privacy in use of the devices.

Under the city’s contract with the company that provided the text messaging services, each pager was allotted 25,000 characters a month. Another officer told Quon he could reimburse the city for any charges when exceeding the limit.

The police department contacted the provider, a company which is now part of USA Mobility Inc, after learning some officers had exceeded the limit each month. The company provided transcripts of the messages to the police chief.

Editing by David Storey