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Watchdog: Text messages are employees’ property

Get out of my business! That's what employees may be telling employers who try to snoop into text messages sent on employer-provided electronic devices.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the content of such text messages are the employees' property.

The case involved a police officer for the city of Ontario, Calif., who sued the city, the Police Department and its pager provider after officials obtained and read a transcript of text messages to and from his pager.

He said the action violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Top police officials said they were trying to find out whether employees were using the devices for personal matters.

Personal use was a violation of city policy, and police officers were required to pay for any overages when they exceeded 25,000 text-messaging characters a month.

The department began an inquiry to "determine if someone was wasting ... City time not doing work when they should be," according to the ruling. The inquiry included an audit of text messages.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit concluded that the department could have determined through less intrusive means whether the officers were misusing the pagers.

To read the decision, Quon v. Arch Wireless, go to, click on Opinions and search by number for 07-55282. The decision was filed June 18.