The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the search of a police officer's personal, sometimes sexually explicit, messages on a government-owned pager, saying it did not violate his constitutional rights.
The court was unanimous in reversing a federal appeals court ruling that sided with the Ontario, Calif., SWAT team officer.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court that the officer, Sgt. Jeff Quon, could not assume "that his messages were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny."
But Kennedy said the court purposely avoided a broader ruling about employees' expectations of privacy when using equipment provided by their employers because of rapid and unpredictable changes in technology.
The Ontario department discovered many personal messages, including some that were said to be sexually explicit, when it decided to audit text message usage to see whether SWAT team officers were using their pagers too often for personal reasons.
Many employers tell workers there is no guarantee of privacy in anything sent over their company- or government-provided computers, cell phones or pagers.
Ontario has a similar policy, but a police official also informally told officers that no one would audit their text messages if the officers personally paid for charges above a monthly allowance.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the informal policy was enough to give the officers a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their text messages and establish that their constitutional rights had been violated.
Kennedy said that it is true that many employers accept or tolerate personal communications on company time and equipment. But he suggested that employees who want to avoid the potential embarrassment of having those communications revealed might "want to purchase and pay for their own" cell phones and other devices.
Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor, said the court probably was wise to rule narrowly.
"With modern technology quickly moving in directions the justices could not have imagined even a decade ago, it is increasingly obvious that the Supreme Court will need to determine the limits of government surveillance of our cell phone conversations, text messages, and other non-wire transmissions," Dressler said.