The Fourth Amendment and the Expectation of Privacy

Public Sector EmployersA recent case involving school officials in Virginia who spied on a teacher brings to light issues of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. In this case, the court sided with the school officials, granting them qualified immunity against the former teacher’s claim. The teacher claimed officials violated his rights by monitoring him in his office
with a video camera hidden inside a stuffed animal. Chadwell v. Brewer (W.D. Va. 2014).

Chadwell worked as a special education teacher. At some point during Chadwell’s employment, his supervisor suspected that he was drinking alcohol in his office during school hours. Rather than speaking to Chadwell, his supervisor placed the video camera in Chadwell’s office. The camera caught Chadwell drinking a beer at his desk,
which eventually led to his termination.

The court first had to determine whether Chadwell had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office. Employers can limit such expectations by having policies that spell out areas at work where there is no expectation of privacy. Common items and places in policies include places or property owned by the public entity such as desk drawers, lockers, and computers. Public employee offices are employer property and not typically seen as private; however, courts will review the facts in any case. The more the office, or items in the office, are in plain view or open to the public or other employees, the less likely there is to be a reasonable expectation of privacy. By contrast, Chadwell’s office was at the end of a dead-end hallway and was rarely visited by anyone other than another teacher’s aide who stored her belongings there. The court held that Chadwell likely had some expectation privacy in his office.

After weighing Chadwell’s reasonable expectation of privacy against the officials’ intrusion, the court ruled the intrusion into his privacy appeared on its face to be reasonable. The court ruled this way for two reasons:

  • There was reasonable suspicion to believe that Chadwell was engaged in prohibited behavior.
  • The officials only used the camera “over a limited period of time to confirm or deny” their suspicion, and did not intrude into Chadwell’s privacy unduly.

If you need to gather information about an employee’s activity, do so in a way that will not create a Fourth Amendment action. Make certain you have good information and reason to believe wrongdoing is occurring, and then only intrude as much as necessary to gather the information needed to determine what is occurring.