Roundtable discussion: Company-issued phones and liabililty

When a police officer is reprimanded for using a department-issued phone for sexting. This is a legal argument that is sure to raise its head much more. Read what our roundtable of experts has to say.

A police sergeant in CA was text messaging on a two-way pager issued by the department. The department had a policy allowing supervisors to monitor email message and Internet usage but the policy didn't say anything about texting. The officer, Jeff Quon, sent text messages that were found to be sexual in nature. Quon argues that he shouldn't face disciplinary action because the department had an informal policy that allowed employees to use pagers for personal matters as long as they paid the overage fees.

A district court ruled that Quon couldn't expect to maintain the privacy of the messages on his department pager. This was overturned by the US Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that the department's review of the message content was "unreasonable in scope."

I asked the TechRepublic roundtable this question: If you were asked to "decide" this case, how would you do it?

Justin James, Programming and Development blog:

The employee has to expect no privacy on company equipment as a matter of common sense. I would imagine that the employer does not need an explicit policy stating that they have this right, since they have it anyway. The policy is more of an official "heads up" to folks to not be surprised by it and to warn people not to abuse the equipment. Regardless of whether or not he was allowed informally to use the pager for personal business if he paid the overage, that does not mean that the employer lost the ability or right to review that usage. After all, how else would they know if he is faithfully paying for the overage or not? If he was using this equipment to commit a crime as "personal business" would this even be in question? Probably not.

Deb Shinder, TechRepublic contributor:

Based on most legal precedent, I would decide in favor of the district court's decision. Generally when an employer is paying for the service, it belongs to the employer and the employee doesn't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in it (with some exceptions). By using the department's equipment and service, the employee puts the employer in a position of liability. Sexual messages sent on departmental equipment could lead to charges against the whole department of sexual harassment. Employees could text content that would indicate bias, racial profiling, etc. Police agencies are very vulnerable to these types of suits and they can cost the agency millions so I think it's reasonable for them to monitor the content.  However, the department needs to revise its policies to make it clear that the monitoring applies to texting and all other forms of communication on the company equipment so that employees can't claim not to have known.

Patrick Gray, It Executive Consultant and TechRepublic contributor

There's a legal aspect and a common-sense aspect to this case. I don't have the legal chops to comment on the legal aspect, but if I were to judge this case I would deem the officer guilty and sentence him to a slap upside the head.

In 2010 if you haven't realized that any communications device issued by your employer (a police department no less) can be monitored, then you are just plain foolish, in league with teens posting video of illegal acts on Facebook, then being surprised the police can also type "" into their web browsers. If you would then use one of these devices to send sexually explicit material you are just plain stupid, and frankly should have neither a pager nor a sidearm!

Do you guys have anything to add?