Employee Should not Expect Privacy in Content of Work Computers

September 3, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A New Jersey appellate court has concluded that a former employee who kept personal files on computers owned by his former employer had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the content on those computers.

The court also concluded that a search of the content on the computers by state law enforcement which was authorized by the employer was valid.

Affirming a lower court ruling, the court found Joseph Braun, a majority owner of Certified Data Products (CDP), owned the laptop the former employee claimed he owned, because the former employee charged the laptop on the corporate credit card unbeknownst to Braun and because the placing of the laptop on CDP’s depreciation schedule clearly demonstrated “that the ownership was reposed in [Braun].”   The court also noted that Braun instructed the employee when he began his employment that all computers were company property.

Guided by federal cases, the appellate court also found the former employee had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the personal information stored in his workplace computer because it was connected to CDP’s network system, it contained business software, Braun had equal access to the computers in the office, a co-worker also had access to the laptop, and the former employee’s private office was never closed or locked. Even if the employee had a subjective expectation of privacy because he used a confidential password, that expectation was unreasonable considering the criminal activity he engaged in against his employer, the court said.

The former employee, whose name was kept private in the case, pled guilty to theft charges after the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained from the warrantless search of a Sony Vaio laptop computer and an Ultra desktop computer conducted pursuant to his employer’s consent. The former employee was sentenced to seven years in prison.

On appeal, defendant contended that his employer had no authority to consent to the search because he owned the computers and he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in personal information stored in the computers.   The search of the tower revealed eight CDP checks with vendor information, Webpage information, a Prudential Securities Stock Account in defendant’s mother’s name, online trading information, and wire transfers from CDP’s account to the former employee and his mother.

The opinion in The State of New Jersey v. M.A. is here .