Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public employer (the Ontario California Police Department) had the right to search an employee's personal and sexually explicit text messages in no small part because these texts were sent and received on a pager device issued by the employer.
The police department conducted an audit of the text messages as a result of significant overage charges to ascertain whether or not the high volume of texts were indeed police business related. When the explicit messages were found the officer was disciplined. The officer then sued, alleging that the city violated his privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment, because of promises by a supervisor not to review the texts if the officer paid the overage charges.
After making its way to the Supreme Court the Court held the employer had legitimate reasons to conduct search and also held its ruling could be applied in the private employer context.
The most important point to be distilled from this is the importance of well drafted computer/technology usage policies. The fact that the police department had a policy setting forth that employees had NO expectation of privacy when using employer provided devices, held sway even in the face of evidence the officer's supervisor verbally contradicted the written policy.
Well drafted and consistently enforced computer, internet and technology policies are a must in the fast paced technology driven communication stream of the 21st Century.
For more information about this case or to discuss the development of enforceable technology policies, contact our Employment Law Department at (213) 480-1900.