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US Supremes to hear text-message privacy case

Do gov employers have a right to snoop?

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The US Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether government employers can snoop on their workers' personal text messages if they're sent from department-issued devices.

The justices agreed to review a federal appeals court decision that sided with Ontario, California police officers who complained their department wrongfully obtained transcripts of their text messages while investigating officers who repeatedly exceeded their monthly 25,000-character text message allowance.

A 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found the city violated the privacy of police Sgt. Jeffery Quon and three other officers after the third-party mobile provider, Arch Wireless voluntarily handed over the transcripts in 2002. The three-judge panel held that because the police department reviewed the transcripts without the consent of Quon, the search was "excessively intrusive in light of the noninvestigatory object of the search."

The city said pager transcripts uncovered that Quon had sent and received hundreds of personal messages on the devices, including many described as "sexually explicit in nature." It appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing the city has policies in place where workers have no expectation of privacy when using equipment that's supplied by the job.

Quon claims that he wasn't aware of the city's policy applied to his department and that an informal policy let officers use the device for personal messages as long as they paid for the overage charges.

The top court is likely to hear arguments in the spring. ®

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