(CN) – A police department’s decision to read the transcripts of a SWAT officer’s personal, sometimes sexually explicit, text messages on a work-issued pager was “reasonable,” the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a decision that sidestepped the broader issue of employee privacy expectations in the digital age.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the unanimous court, cautioned that a broad ruling could be problematic, given the rapidly evolving nature of technology.
“The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear,” he wrote.
“A broad holding concerning employees’ privacy expectations vis-à-vis employer-provided technological equipment might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted,” Kennedy wrote. “It is preferable to dispose of this case on narrower grounds.”
The justices honed in on whether the search was reasonable under Fourth Amendment precedent.
The police department in Ontario, Calif., had reviewed the transcripts to determine how much Sgt. Jeff Quon owed the department for exceeding his 25,000-character allotment.
Initially, officers could simply pay for their overages without an audit. But the lieutenant who collected the money apparently got tired of being a “bill collector” and decided to investigate Quon’s repeat overages.
Arch Wireless handed the transcripts over to the Ontario Police Department, because the city owned the pagers.
Quon, his wife and a few other recipients of Quon’s messages sued the city, claiming it violated their privacy rights.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit sided with Quon, finding the department’s actions “excessively intrusive in light of the non-investigatory object of the search.”
The Supreme Court heard the case after the 9th Circuit declined to reconsider the panel’s ruling, a decision that drew sharp dissent.
The high court ruled Thursday that “reviewing the transcripts was reasonable because it was an efficient and expedient way to determine whether Quon’s overages were the result of work-related messaging or personal use.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said Quon “should have understood that all of his work-related actions — including all of his communications on his official pager — were likely to be subject to public and legal scrutiny.”
Justice Antonin Scalia also found the search reasonable, but wrote separately to object to the court’s reliance on the plurality opinion in O’Connor v. Ortega, which held that courts must consider the “operational realities of the workplace” in cases implicating an employee’s Fourth Amendment rights.
“I continue to believe that the ‘operational realities’ rubric … is standardless and unsupported,” he wrote.