FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE
Can the department eavesdrop on personal calls on a phone line the employees had been told was not being taped?
A suit was filed by 63 employees and former employees of a police department under the federal electronic eavesdropping statute claiming that private conversations had been taped on one of the department’s telephone lines the employees had been told was not a taped line.
A departmental memo issued to all employees stated that the “line was intentionally left untapped to allow for personal calls”. Subsequent memoranda issued over the years continued to refer to the line as being not tapped. Tapped lines within the department included a periodic “beep”. After an incident during which a report of a chlorine leak had been taken over the untapped line, the department began to tape that line as well, but failed to inform employees of the action.
The federal court determined that recording “…all calls to and from a police department is…a routine police practice” and therefore permissible under federal law. As for the fact that the employees had been told the line was untapped, the court stated the “…invasion of privacy was regrettable, but if all Congress had cared about was the protection of privacy it would not have written an exception for electronic eavesdropping in the ordinary course of law enforcement into the statute; it would in every case have required consent…”.
The message is clear – regardless of what you are told, assume that the phone lines at the department are tapped. Making personal telephone calls from work may well render the contents of those phone calls public.