U.S. Supreme Court Hears Case Involving Employees’ Expectation of Privacy Using Personal Communication Devices During Work Hours

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Although the U.S. Supreme Court rules on specific, individual cases argued before it, those rulings can have far-reaching implications for employers and employees in a similar circumstance. That is exactly what could happen in a recent case about an Orlando, California police officer who is charging that his privacy rights were violated when the police chief read thousands of very personal messages the officer texted to his girlfriend. In addition, the police officer had paid for the extra minutes he used.

Two years previously, a lower court ruled that the police chief had no legitimate reason to view those personal messages. The judge’s decision was based on the 4th Amendment’s unreasonable-search language. Now, the case has proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court where the judges will be asked for the first time to determine if the right to privacy includes employees’ emails, cell phones and other personal communication devices used during work hours.

During the original case, before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the attorney representing the city of Orlando argued that it’s policy was distributed to all city employees, including the police officer. It states that employees’ pagers, computers, etc. could be monitored. The police officer’s attorney counter-argued that any employee expects some level of privacy when calling a family member, for example, even on a company’s phone system.

A broad ruling that would favor the rights of employers to monitor employees’ personal communications could affect most workplaces. The court could also focus on the specifics of the police officer’s case and decide that someone in his position (a SWAT officer) should not expect complete privacy, since it is routine for officers’ communications to be monitored and reviewed following the commitment of crimes to which they responded.

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