Following up on my earlier post about City of Ontario v. Quon, here, SCOTUS issued its decision in the case today. Here is the unanimous (sort of) decision finding the City’s search of it’s police officer’s text messages sent through a City owned pager using a commercial messaging service was reasonable.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the most interesting question in the case was whether the officer had an expectation of privacy in personal text messages sent through the service to the government owned pager. Unfortunately SCOTUS avoided the issue, though stating that the interest they assumed was “limited,” and avoided establishing a single test to determine if there is a privacy interest in the government employee context, by finding that even if there was a privacy interest the search was reasonable. SCOTUS will likely wait for a case to percolate up where the search is arguably unreasonable to decide the more interesting issue. Here are some key portions of the opinion:
Even if Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his text messages, petitioners did not necessarily violate the Fourth Amendment by obtaining and reviewing thetranscripts. Although as a general matter, warrantless searches “are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” there are “a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions” to that general rule. Katz, supra, at 357. The Court has held that the “‘special needs’” of the workplace justify one such exception. O’Connor, 480 U. S., at 725 (plurality opinion); id., at 732 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment); Von Raab, 489 U. S., at 666–667.
Under the approach of the O’Connor plurality, when conducted for a “noninvestigatory, work-related purpos[e]”or for the “investigatio[n] of work-related misconduct,” a government employer’s warrantless search is reasonable if it is “‘justified at its inception’” and if “‘the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of’” the circumstances giving rise to the search. 480 U. S., at 725– 726. The search here satisfied the standard of the O’Connor plurality and was reasonable under that approach.
The search was justified at its inception because there were “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search [was] necessary for a noninvestigatory work-related purpose.” Id., at 726. As a jury found, Chief Scharf 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. . . .
Because the search was motivated by a legitimate work related purpose, and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable under the approach of the O’Connorplurality. 480 U. S., at 726. For these same reasons—that the employer had a legitimate reason for the search, and that the search was not excessively intrusive in light of that justification—the Court also concludes that the search would be “regarded as reasonable and normal in the private-employer context” and would satisfy the approach of JUSTICE SCALIA’s concurrence. Id., at 732. The search was reasonable, and the Court of Appeals erred by holding to the contrary. Petitioners did not violate Quon’s Fourth Amendment rights.
For avid Court followers, an amusing exchange between Justice Stevens and Scalia over the relevance of a dissent in a 4-1-4 decision makes their concurrences worth reading.