Justices leave ruling on work privacy intact

Lower court threw out evidence seized in room near employee's office

June 08, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, rebuffing the Justice Department, refused yesterday to consider cutting back on the privacy people enjoy at work.

Without comment, the justices voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that threw out evidence in a child pornography case that federal agents had seized without a search warrant in a room near the office of a Georgia man.

The lower court ruled that an employee's constitutional right to privacy is not confined to the employee's daily work space, but can extend to areas the worker only infrequently uses, such as the room where the evidence was seized.

If a worker keeps personal items at the office or factory, and takes steps to make sure they remain private, police or federal agents cannot search for those items or seize them without a warrant, according to the decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The ruling does not limit company management from searching workers' belongings kept at work, since private companies are not limited by the Constitution's Fourth Amendment. The Constitution only applies to government searches.

The Denver court commented: "An employee has a greater expectation of privacy in items in his immediate control, regardless of the business connection he may or may not have to the room where the items are found."

The Justice Department challenged that ruling in an appeal, urging the Supreme Court to rule that, if items are not kept in the worker's normal work area, they are not entitled to privacy.

The court gave no reason for refusing to hear the case. That does not mean the justices agree with the lower court ruling, but only that they thought the issue not worth their time at this point. The issue could arise again.

The case the court passed up involved James S. Anderson of Duluth, Ga., who was caught by FBI agents in a 1996 California-to-Oklahoma "sting" operation to track down individuals who distributed child pornography through an Internet chat room known as the Orchid Club.

Anderson was charged with distributing pornographic videotapes, which FBI agents seized from a room at his office, ATD Corp. in Duluth. Anderson was a vice president at the company.

The lower court decision in Anderson's favor barred Justice Department prosecutors from using the videotapes, as well as statements that Anderson made about them when they were seized. Anderson has not been tried.

In another action, the court continued its long-running effort to cut back on state prison inmates' rights to challenge their convictions and sentences in federal courts.

A state inmate is barred from raising issues in his case in a federal court, the justices declared by a 6-3 vote in an Illinois case, if the prisoner has not tried to test those issues before a state supreme court -- even if such a test would have been futile.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the opinion, reinstating the conviction of Darren Boerckel of Montgomery County, Ill., on charges of burglary and rape of an 87-year-old woman in 1976.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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