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Ninth Circuit rules text messages protected by Fourth Amendment

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [PDF text] Wednesday that employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages sent on work cell phones. The present case was bought by an Ontario police officer who alleged that his department violated his Fourth Amendment [LII backgrounder] rights by reading his messages; the officer also brought suit against text-messaging service Arch Wireless [parent company website], which released the messages to the department. The court found that if text messages are stored by an outside service, rather than on an employer's own servers, the employer does not have a right to see those messages without the employee's permission. The court also held that Arch Wireless, as an "electronic communication service," had violated the Stored Communications Act [text] by releasing the texts to the department. Considering the privacy implications of the case, the court wrote:

The extent to which the Fourth Amendment provides protection for the contents of electronic communications in the Internet age is an open question. The recently minted standard of electronic communication via e-mails, text messages, and other means opens a new frontier in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that has been little explored. Here, we must first answer the threshold question: Do users of text messaging services such as those provided by Arch Wireless have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their text messages stored on the service provider’s network? We hold that they do.
The LA Times has more. The San Francisco Chronicle has additional coverage.

The decision is the first time that a federal appeals court has found that electronic messages are covered by Fourth Amendment protections. Advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation [advocacy website] praised the decision [press release] as "an immensely important one which gives the victims of unlawful searches the ability to suppress illegally obtained evidence."

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