Sunday, November 6, 2011

A search by a government employer of an employee’s office is justified at inception when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that it will turn up evidence that the employee is guilty of work-related misconduct.[51] Thus, in the 2004 case decided by the US Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit, it was held that where a government agency’s computer use policy prohibited electronic messages with pornographic content and in addition expressly provided that employees do not have any personal privacy rights regarding their use of the agency information systems and technology, the government employee had no legitimate expectation of privacy as to the use and contents of his office computer, and therefore evidence found during warrantless search of the computer was admissible in prosecution for child pornography. In that case, the defendant employee’s computer hard drive was first remotely examined by a computer information technician after his supervisor received complaints that he was inaccessible and had copied and distributed non-work-related e-mail messages throughout the office. When the supervisor confirmed that defendant had used his computer to access the prohibited websites, in contravention of the express policy of the agency, his computer tower and floppy disks were taken and examined. A formal administrative investigation ensued and later search warrants were secured by the police department. The initial remote search of the hard drive of petitioner’s computer, as well as the subsequent warrantless searches was held as valid under the O’Connor ruling that a public employer can investigate work-related misconduct so long as any search is justified at inception and is reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified it in the first place.[52]

Under the facts obtaining, the search conducted on petitioner’s computer was justified at its inception and scope. We quote with approval the CSC’s discussion on the reasonableness of its actions, consistent as it were with the guidelines established by O’Connor:

Even conceding for a moment that there is no such administrative policy, there is no doubt in the mind of the Commission that the search of Pollo’s computer has successfully passed the test of reasonableness for warrantless searches in the workplace as enunciated in the above-discussed American authorities. It bears emphasis that the Commission pursued the search in its capacity as a government employer and that it was undertaken in connection with an investigation involving a work-related misconduct, one of the circumstances exempted from the warrant requirement. At the inception of the search, a complaint was received recounting that a certain division chief in the CSCRO No. IV was “lawyering” for parties having pending cases with the said regional office or in the Commission. The nature of the imputation was serious, as it was grievously disturbing. If, indeed, a CSC employee was found to be furtively engaged in the practice of “lawyering” for parties with pending cases before the Commission would be a highly repugnant scenario, then such a case would have shattering repercussions. It would undeniably cast clouds of doubt upon the institutional integrity of the Commission as a quasi-judicial agency, and in the process, render it less effective in fulfilling its mandate as an impartial and objective dispenser of administrative justice. It is settled that a court or an administrative tribunal must not only be actually impartial but must be seen to be so, otherwise the general public would not have any trust and confidence in it.

Considering the damaging nature of the accusation, the Commission had to act fast, if only to arrest or limit any possible adverse consequence or fall-out. Thus, on the same date that the complaint was received, a search was forthwith conducted involving the computer resources in the concerned regional office. That it was the computers that were subjected to the search was justified since these furnished the easiest means for an employee to encode and store documents. Indeed, the computers would be a likely starting point in ferreting out incriminating evidence. Concomitantly, the ephemeral nature of computer files, that is, they could easily be destroyed at a click of a button, necessitated drastic and immediate action. Pointedly, to impose the need to comply with the probable cause requirement would invariably defeat the purpose of the wok-related investigation.

Worthy to mention, too, is the fact that the Commission effected the warrantless search in an open and transparent manner. Officials and some employees of the regional office, who happened to be in the vicinity, were on hand to observe the process until its completion. In addition, the respondent himself was duly notified, through text messaging, of the search and the concomitant retrieval of files from his computer.

All in all, the Commission is convinced that the warrantless search done on computer assigned to Pollo was not, in any way, vitiated with unconstitutionality. It was a reasonable exercise of the managerial prerogative of the Commission as an employer aimed at ensuring its operational effectiveness and efficiency by going after the work-related misfeasance of its employees. Consequently, the evidence derived from the questioned search are deemed admissible.[53]

Petitioner’s claim of violation of his constitutional right to privacy must necessarily fail. His other argument invoking the privacy of communication and correspondence under Section 3(1), Article III of the 1987 Constitution is also untenable considering the recognition accorded to certain legitimate intrusions into the privacy of employees in the government workplace under the aforecited authorities. We likewise find no merit in his contention that O’Connor and Simons are not relevant because the present case does not involve a criminal offense like child pornography. As already mentioned, the search of petitioner’s computer was justified there being reasonable ground for suspecting that the files stored therein would yield incriminating evidence relevant to the investigation being conducted by CSC as government employer of such misconduct subject of the anonymous complaint. This situation clearly falls under the exception to the warrantless requirement in administrative searches defined in O’Connor.

Pollo v. David G.R. No. 181881 , Oct. 18, 2011

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