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

The City of Ontario’s Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy provides that use of the city’s computers and other electronic equipment, networks, etc., is limited to city-related business, that access is not confidential and “users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources.” Sergeant Jeff Quon, a member of the city’s SWAT team, signed an employee acknowledgement of the Policy and attended a meeting in which he and others were informed that text messages were considered to be the same as e-mail and could be audited by the department. However, Quon was later told that the content of his text messages would not be audited so long as he paid the department for any charges associated with texting more than 25,000 characters in a billing cycle. When a lieutenant in the department “grew weary” of being a bill collector for officers who exceeded the 25,000 character limit, the department contacted Arch Wireless and requested transcripts of the text messages. After the department received the transcripts from Arch, internal affairs conducted an investigation to determine “if someone was wasting city time not doing work when they should be.” The investigation revealed that many of Quon’s messages were personal in nature and sexually explicit.

Quon and those with whom he had texted sued the city for violating their Fourth Amendment right to be free of an unreasonable search and seizure. In deciding the case, the Supreme Court assumed that Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages and that the city’s review of those messages constituted a Fourth Amendment search analogous to a government employer’s search of an employee’s physical office or work space. Nevertheless, the Court determined that the search of Quon’s text messages was reasonable because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and because it was not excessive in scope. Therefore, the city did not violate the Fourth Amendment in reviewing the text messages. Cf. Comite de Jornaleros de Redondo Beach v. City of Redondo Beach, 2010 WL 2293200 (9th Cir. 2010) (city’s ordinance prohibiting the act of standing on a street or highway soliciting employment, business or contributions from occupants of an automobile is a valid time, place or manner restriction and does not violate First Amendment rights).