O’Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987)

Officials at Napa State Hospital, after placing Dr. Magno Ortega on administrative leave pending an investigation into possible workplace improprieties, searched his office. Information found in the office was later used in an administrative proceeding that led to Dr. Ortega’s dismissal. Dr. Ortega then filed an action in federal court against hospital officials alleging that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. On a motion for summary judgment, the district court ruled against Dr. Ortega, finding that the search was proper. On appeal, the circuit court found that the search did violate the Fourth Amendment, and remanded the case to the district court for a determination of damages.

The Supreme Court found both lower courts to be in error. Under the Court’s analysis, while public employees have legitimate workplace privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment, these must be balanced against the public employer’s interest in supervision, control, and the efficient operation of the workplace. The Court here makes a key distinction between searches by law enforcement officials, which are held to a probable cause standard, and searches by public employers, which are held to a less stringent reasonable standard. According to the Court, public employers’ searches are valid if done for noninvestigatory work related matters or to investigate workplace misconduct, are reasonably justified, and the scope of the search is reasonably related to the objective of the intrusion. Under this standard, the Court found that the district court erred by failing to first determine the context of the search and the circuit court erred by not evaluating the reasonableness of the search and its scope.

MARCEL GREEN

References and Further Reading

  • Israel, Jerold H., and Wayne R. LaFave. Criminal Procedure in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West, 2001.

See also Search (General Definition); Warrantless Searches

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