Case Study

Abdallah H Saggaf

The Quon case deals with these police officers who were issued pagers for work purposes. Although the city had a formal policy that stated that computers, cell phone, pagers and other electronic devices were to be used only for work-related purposes, that policy had been replaced by an informal one stated by the police officers’ supervisor. He told the officers that they could use the pagers also for personal use, and that they had to pay for the pager costs only when they exceeded the monthly 25,000 character limit. The plainitff, Quon, exceeded the limit 3 or 4 times and paid the excess charge.
Things changed when the department wanted to conduct an audit to determine whether or not the officers were exceeding the monthly character limit, and by how much. However, instead of just auditing the number of characters, they choose to audit the content of the messages as well. What did they find? In addition to the work-related messages sent from Quon’s pager, they also found sexually explicit messages that had been sent to his fiance. The issue before the court was whether that search of the content of the messages was unreasonable and thus in violation of the 4th Amendment.

The court of appeals held that it was unreasonable. Quon, and the other officers had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of the messages that they sent from their pages, despite the fact that there were work-issued. The
informal policy that had been established played a key role in determining that there was this expectation of privacy. Employers (including private ones) have been found to have waived a policy that gave them the right to access employees’ emails when they did not actively enforce the policy, or when there was no policy at all. The court also examined the scope of the search and concluded that although it was reasonable at first (when they examined the number of characters), it became unreasonable when they read...