City of Ontario v. Quon
130 S.Ct. 2619 (2010).

Facts:

  • The Ontario Police Department (OPD) issued pagers to its SWAT team. Each pager had a limited number of text messages, and usage in excess of that amount resulted in an additional fee.
  • Quon repeatedly went over the limit and, in an effort to check whether the limit was too low, OPD checked the transcripts to see if the messages were work-related, or personal.
  • Quon’s messages were mostly all personal, and some were sexually explicit. He was disciplined and then brought a Fourth Amendment claim.
  • Note: There was a “Computer Usage, Internet and Email Policy” where users had no expectation of privacy.
    • Although text messages weren’t specifically included, it was made clear that they would be treated the same, and that was put into writing.

Issue:
Did the Department’s search of a SWAT member’s pager violate the Fourth Amendment?

Holding:
No.

Reasoning:

  • The court assumed that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages, and that a search was conducted. Thus, the issue came down to whether it was reasonable:
  • When conducted for a noninvestigatory, work-related purpose or for the investigation of work-related misconduct, a government employer’s warrantless search is reasonable if:

(1) It is justified at its inception; and
(2) The measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive.

  • Here, the court held that the search here was reasonable:

(1) The Chief ordered the search in order to determine whether the character limit on the City’s contract with Arch Wireless was sufficient to meet the City’s needs – thus, it was a “noninvestigatory, work-related purpose,” and “justified at its inception.”
(2) It wasn’t excessively intrusive because although Quon had gone over his monthly allotment a number of times, OPD requested transcripts for only the months of August and September 2002. Furthermore, McMahon redacted all messages Quon sent while off duty.

Rule: When conducted for a noninvestigatory, work-related purpose or for the investigation of work-related misconduct, a government employer’s warrantless search is reasonable if:

(1) It is justified at its inception; and
(2) The measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive.