When is an Authority’s Search of Someone’s Private Digital Information Acceptable, and Will Riley v. California Have an Impact on Non-Law-Enforcement Searches in Education and Employment Contexts?

When is an Authority’s Search of Someone’s Private Digital Information Acceptable, and Will Riley v. California Have an Impact on Non-Law-Enforcement Searches in Education and Employment Contexts?

Written by: Jason Meyers

The Fourth Amendment states that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches . . . shall not be violated.”

In the public education context, in New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Supreme Court held that the prohibition of the Fourth Amendment applies to public school officials. The Court ruled that “[u]nder ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a . . . school official will be ‘justified at its inception’ when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.” In order for the search to continue, it must then be “‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.’”

In the public employment context, in City of Ontario, California v. Quon, the Supreme Court held that a public employer can search the content of an employee’s text messages that were sent and received on an employer-owned device when the employer has a “legitimate work-related purpose” to conduct the search and the search is not excessive.

Lastly, in the law-enforcement context, in Riley v. California, the Court held that “officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting . . . searches of data on cell phones.” Absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless search of an arrestee’s surroundings and person is justified only when there are risks of either “harm to officers [or] destruction of evidence.”

Does Riley, then, have any bearing on when non-law-enforcement public authorities, such as public school officials and public employers, may search the private digital information of students or workers who possess or use electronic devices in violation of school or workplace policies?

Taking Quon and Riley together, public employers and law-enforcement officers are not presumed to be reasonable when searching a person’s private digital information. Further, in the public employment context, absent an employee illegitimately using an employer’s electronic device, and, in the law-enforcement context, absent either a warrant or imminent harm, there is no justification for an authority to search someone’s private digital information. In the public education context, then, I expect the Court to overrule its holding in T.L.O. and, under a new set of facts, hold that searches by school officials of student electronic devices, absent an immediate risk of harm, are never reasonable invasions of student privacy.[9]

[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[2] New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 333 (1985).

[3] Id. at 341-42 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 (1968)). See generally City of Ontario, Cal. v. Quon, 560 U.S. 746, 760 (“Although as a general matter, warrantless searches ‘are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,’ there are ‘a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions’ to that general rule.”) (quoting Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1991)).

[4] T.L.O., 469 U.S. at 341 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 20).

[5] Quon, 560 U.S. at 764.

[6] Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2485 (2014).

[7] Id. at 2494.

[8] Id. at 2484.

[9] Amy Vorenberg, Indecent Exposure: Do Warrantless Searches of a Student’s Cell Phone Violate the Fourth Amendment?, 17 BERKELEY J. CRIM. L. 62, 88-96 (2012); see Riley, 134 S. Ct. at 2484 (“[W]e generally determine whether to exempt a given type of search from the warrant requirement ‘by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.’”) (quoting Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 300 (1999)); cf. G.C. v. Owensboro Pub. Sch., 711 F.3d 623, 633 (2013) (holding that a school official’s search of a student’s phone “is justified at its inception if there is reasonable suspicion that a search will uncover evidence of further wrongdoing or of injury to the student or another.”). Contra J.W. v. Desoto Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 2:09-CV-00155-MPM-DAS, 2010 WL 4394059, at *4-5 (N.D. Miss. Nov. 1, 2010) (“Upon witnessing a student improperly using a cell phone at school, it strikes this court as being reasonable for a school official to seek to determine to what end the student was improperly using that phone. . . . In the court’s view, a student’s decision to violate school rules by bringing contraband on campus and using that contraband within view of teachers appropriately results in a diminished privacy expectation in that contraband.”).


Author: Jason D. Meyers

Jason Meyers is a Dean’s Merit Scholar at Rutgers School of Law - Newark as well as a 2014-15 Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. He has a B.A., cum laude, in English, an M.A. in education, and an M.A. in the liberal arts. In the summer of 2014, he interned for the Honorable Clayton Greene, Jr., of the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Jason also teaches English at an urban public high school where he founded and coached the girls’ soccer team.