U.S. News

Court allows search of text messages on pager

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a search of sexually explicit text messages sent by a police officer on a department pager was reasonable and did not violate his privacy rights.

The justices unanimously overturned a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in California that found that reading the text messages sent on an employer-provided electronic device violated the worker’s constitutional privacy rights.

It marked the first time that the Supreme Court addressed whether the U.S. Constitution’s protection of privacy rights extended to text messages on the job.

The ruling was a victory for a city in California and for the Obama administration, which had argued that workers have no expectation of privacy in their communications on devices supplied by their employers.

The case had been closely watched as computers, cell phones and pagers have become standard communications equipment in the workplace. Many employers have told their workers their use of the devices can be monitored.

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 and received the messages -- fellow Sergeant Steve Trujillo, Dispatcher April Florio, who was his girlfriend, and his wife Jerilyn Quon.

The department said Quon used his pager 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.

Writing the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Though the case touches issues of far-reaching significance, the court concludes it can be resolved by settled principles determining when a search is reasonable.”

The Supreme Court case is City of Ontario v. Quon, 08-1332.

Editing by Alan Elsner