The Expectation of Privacy & Your Employment: Illegal Search & Seizure at the Office
We all enjoy the constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures which is protected by the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I Section VIII of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The US and Pennsylvania Constitutions consider all searches done without a search warrant illegal unless certain characteristics exist such as exigent circumstances, in “Plain View”, a search incident to arrest, an inventory search after an arrest.
In all other cases police officer needs a search warrant to search you or your property. Your property can include your home, car, or any other of your belongings. At work, however, you don’t enjoy the same constitutional rights even if you work for the government at the state, local, or federal level. Remember that your constitutional rights only apply in situations where a government agent is conducting the search of you or your belongings.
Where there is no government agent there is a very strong possibility a court will find the search permissible and all of the evidence obtained from the search admissible at trial. The purpose of the fourth amendment is to protect citizens from unwarranted government intrusion and so if there is no government actor, there is no 4th Amendment violation issue. The only exception is in cases where private security or agents maintain broader arrest powers and the ability to hold suspects for government law enforcement. These situations may apply to private security guards who detain shoplifting suspects, corporate security officers who protect corporate property, and some college security.
In the case of government work environments, courts will evaluate the warrantless search of an employee’s desk, filing cabinets, lockers, or any other container using a reasonableness standard as opposed to probable cause evidentiary standard. The Supreme Court has consistently held that government employers and supervisors do not need a search warrant if the search of employees work space is reasonable. The court has applied the standard because employees have a reduced expectation of privacy at work and the employer must maintain an environment which allows the office to function efficiently and without unnecessary distractions. Courts will evaluate all searches of a government employees’ work space using a three step analysis’: (1) the employee’s relationship to the item seized, (2) whether the item was in the immediate control of the employee when it was seized, and (3) whether the employee took actions to maintain his/her privacy in the items.
In most situations courts will find a search of an employees workspace permissible and only find the search illegal if the defense can establish that law enforcement directed the search evidentiary standard. The bottom line is that you don’t have the same constitutional right at the office that you have at home or in your car.