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“Private” text messages on the government dime doesn’t seem right

Submitted by on Monday, 14 December 2009 No Comment

In the electronic game of cops and robbers, the cops are winning – at least in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Back in February, that court ruled that it was fine for prosecutors to subpoena text messages of people accused of masterminding armed robberies at credit unions and use those messages as part of a criminal case that led to their conviction. The robbers contended that officials should have been forced to obtain a search warrant instead of simply subpoenaing their wireless carrier.

In 2008, though, that same court ruled that police officers did have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when sending text messages via department-issued pagers. That case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Good. There’s a lot about this issue that needs to be settled, particularly since the same appeals court ruled that it’s OK to seize the robbers records from their service provider but it’s not all right for the city that issued and paid for the pager to poke through police officers’ text messages.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the officers claimed that the City of Ontario, Calif., had an informal policy allowing them to use the text-enabled pagers for personal messages as long as they reimbursed the city for any extra charges the personal use triggered. A formal city policy, however, says that the employee has no right to privacy when using any government-issued equipment.

It boggles the mind that police officers, would claim that “informal” policy overrides what’s codified. Try it the next time you get popped for speeding – Sorry, officer, but the informal policy says you give me an extra 10 mph.

It’s also astounding that law officers, who should be aware of text messages being used many times as evidence in court, are now crying “private” when one of their own is caught sending naughty messages to his girlfriend.

I’m rooting for the cops, though, because if it’s illegal for the boss to read their messages, then it’s illegal for officials to snoop through everyone else’s inbox without jumping over the same hurdle.

And if the Supreme Court rules in the officers’ favor, it could be a case of “be careful what you wish for.” That’s actually a good outcome for all of us.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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