The United States Supreme Court ruled recently that supervisors at work may read an employee’s text messages if they think the employee may be violating work rules. The case stemmed from a situation in California where a police chief read thousands of text messages between a sergeant on the police force and his wife. The texts were sent on a pager that was issued to employees by the police department. The police chief said he searched and read the employee’s text messages because he suspected employees of using the pagers for personal use rather than purely work purposes.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. We often see the Fourth Amendment come into play when police officers search people, their vehicles, their homes and other belongings. Of course, this protection applies to people as they work in government jobs, but it does not extend to searches conducted by private employers in the private sector.
In this case, the Court found that the search was reasonable because the search was for a legitimate work-related purpose. This opinion establishes that the Fourth Amendment does protect public employees from unreasonable searches and seizures by employers and supervisors. It also establishes that a search of one’s allegedly private text messages or emails may be reasonable and valid if the employer has a policy against using a government-issue pager, cell phone or computer for personal reasons.
As criminal defense lawyers in Jacksonville, Florida, we can see how this ruling may have an effect on criminal cases. If a person works at a government job, that employee may be susceptible to having his/her computer, cell phone or pager searched if the employer suspects the employee of violating office policies regarding the use of those items. We have seen cases where such a search becomes the beginning of a criminal case depending on what is found on that equipment. If incriminating evidence is found and an arrest results, the criminal defense attorney can still file the appropriate motion to suppress to have any such evidence illegally obtained thrown out of court.