Officials at the Ontario, Calif., Police Department were concerned that members of the SWAT team were using their taxpayer-funded cell phones to send personal text messages.
So they began monitoring usage of the phones.
Three police officers and another department employee found out about the plan and sued, arguing their superiors had improperly eavesdropped on their private exchanges.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed the employees, holding that the department had violated an informal policy that let workers use the electronic equipment for personal reasons, as long as they reimbursed the costs each month.
On Monday, the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, where questioning indicated that justices were inclined to side with the city. Good.
There may or may not be an expectation of privacy when a worker at a private firm uses office equipment for personal reasons. It depends upon the company, the job and the policies it has put in place.
But in the public sector, no such expectation should ever be considered, lest some national security concern arise. These are, after all, taxpayer-funded electronic devices. As Justice John Paul Stevens noted during oral arguments, "Wouldn't you just assume that that whole universe of conversations by SWAT officers who were on duty 24/7 might well have to be reviewed by some member of the public or some of their superiors?"
Indeed, ensuring that such information is available to the taxpayers who fund these operations is a vital check that allows citizens to monitor the effectiveness of government workers and the necessity of such expenditures in the first place.
If the police officers wanted to keep the subject of their text messaging private, they should have used their own personal devices.
There is absolutely nothing unreasonable about public-sector officials ensuring that taxpayer-funded computer and electronic equipment are used for the purposes intended. Were the justices to rule otherwise, it would undermine the important democratic concept of open government.