(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether a police department in California violated an officer’s privacy rights by reading sexually explicit text messages sent from a department-issued pager.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had sided with SWAT team Sgt. Jeff Quon, who accused the Ontario Police Department of snooping on his personal text messages.
The department reviewed the messages to determine how much Quon owed it for exceeding his 25,000-character allotment. Officers usually paid the department for any overages, but the lieutenant who collected the money said he was sick of being a bill collector and decided to investigate Quon’s repeat overages.
Quon, his wife and other recipients of Quon’s text messages sued the department for alleged privacy violations, claiming the department’s actions amounted to an unreasonable search barred by the Fourth Amendment.
The 9th Circuit ruled for Quon, saying the department had ignored less-intrusive alternatives, such as asking Quon to redact his personal messages before the police chief read the transcripts.
Reading the full transcripts was “excessively intrusive in light of the non-investigatory object of the search,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote for the three-judge panel.
A majority of the 9th Circuit judges turned down a petition to rehear the case before the full court, a decision that revealed deep divisions on the court.
Judge Sandra Ikuta, dissenting from the denial of a rehearing en banc, said the panel decision “improperly hobbles government employers from managing their workforces” and “conflicts with binding Supreme Court precedent.”
The Supreme Court agreed to tackle the privacy dilemmas created by new technology, specifically whether employers can monitor work-issued computers, cell phones, pagers and other communication devices without violating the Fourth Amendment.