Muni-mail – SCOTUS: Warrantless Search of Employee Text Messages Okay

[06/20/10 – 6:03 pm] On Thursday morning, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the “special needs” exception to the warrant requirement will justify a warrantless search of the stored text messages of a local government employee. The Court’s ruling in Ontario v. Quon dealt with a case where a municipal police department conducted an audit of text messaging from its police department-issued texting devices in an effort to determine cost effectiveness. The search revealed that one officer had used his municipal texting device for personal and improper reasons. The Justices found that since the search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose, and because it w as not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable under the 4 th Amendment. Moreover, the municipal employer had a legitimate reason for the search, and that the search was not excessively intrusive.

It is interesting to note in the opinion how the Court is struggling to determine the limitations on what society views as a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area of stored electronic communications during this era of rapidly developing personal communication devices. In deciding this case, the Justices simply assumed arguendo that the employee in question had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the communications data generated and stored in his work-issued texting device. Given the wide-ranging diversity of opinion in society on the issue of a legitimate expectation of privacy for this type of stored data and the ever advancing new technologies related to storage of electronic communications, the Court left for another day a comprehensive discussion on what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy in this area of 4th Amendment jurisprudence.

Download a copy of the case, Ontario v. Quon.

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