Supreme Court court rules in text-messaging, property rights cases

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 2:13 PM

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a police department's search of an officer's sexually explicit text messages did not violate his constitutional rights. But the court steered clear of making a broad pronouncement on workers' expectations of privacy when using electronic devices supplied by their employers.

Separately, the justices ruled unanimously that Florida's beach restoration program does not violate the rights of waterfront property owners. But the court split evenly on the broader property rights issue the case represented: whether the action of a court can constitute a "taking" of private property as defined by the Constitution.

The unanimous narrow decisions came as the court enters the home stretch of its current term, the last for 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens. The court still must render decisions in 15 cases, including important First Amendment and gun-rights issues, to reach the goal of finishing its work June 28.

In the text-messaging case, the court was considering a lower court's decision that the city of Ontario, Calif., police department violated the rights of Sgt. Jeff Quon by examining the text messages he had sent and received on his department-issued pager. He claimed that the move was a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.

But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, said Quon should not have assumed that the messages "were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny." Quon frequently exceeded the monthly limit on texting, and Kennedy said the department's search was prompted by a desire to determine if the limit was too low.

Instead, it found the vast majority of Quon's messages were personal, including sexually explicit comments sent to his wife, his mistress and another officer.

Kennedy said the court was wary of making a broad ruling, though, on the privacy rights of workers.

"Prudence counsels caution before the facts in the instant case are used to establish far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations enjoyed by employees when using employer-provided communication devices," Kennedy wrote. "Rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission are evident not just in the technology itself but in what society accepts as proper behavior.''

The case is City of Ontario v. Quon.

In the beach case, the court ruled against homeowners in the Florida Panhandle who claimed that the state's beach restoration efforts had created a new strip of land that was claimed by the state, and meant their property lines no longer extended to the water.

But the court said that the state was only filling in submerged land that belonged to the public and that the property owners had not suffered a loss.

The judgment was 8 to 0; Stevens did not participate because he owns a condo on a strip of South Florida beach that is scheduled for restoration. But the justices split evenly on the broader issue in the case, which was whether the actions of the judiciary -- in this case, the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld the program -- could constitute a "taking" of private property forbidden in the Constitution.

Four members of the court -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- said yes.

"It would be absurd to allow a state to do by judicial decree what the takings clause forbids it to do by legislative fiat," Scalia wrote.

But the other justices -- Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- said there was no reason to reach such a conclusion, which the court has never recognized, to decide the Florida case.

Kennedy and Sotomayor further suggested they may not find such so-called judicial takings to be authorized by the Constitution.

"It is unclear whether the takings clause was understood, as a historical matter, to apply to judicial decisions," Kennedy wrote for the two.

The case is Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

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