Thursday, December 15, 2011

Briccio “Ricky” A. Pollo vs. Chairperson Karina Constantino-David, et al., G.R. No. 181881. October 18, 2011.

Right to privacy; unreasonable search and seizure. This case involves a search of office computer assigned to a government employee who was charged administratively and eventually dismissed from the service. The employee’s personal files stored in the computer were used by the government employer as evidence of misconduct. Petitioner questions the legality of the search conducted on his office computer and the copying of his personal files without his knowledge and consent. He said this search violated his constitutional right to privacy. The right to privacy is a facet of the right protected by the guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure under Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Constitution.

Relying on US jurisprudence, the Court noted that the existence of privacy right involves a two-fold requirement: first, that a person has exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy; and second, that the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable (objective). Once the right is established, the next inquiry is whether the search alleged to have violated such right was reasonable. This proceeds from the principle that the constitutional guarantee under Section 2, Article III, is not a prohibition of all searches and seizures but only of unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the case of searches conducted by a public employer, the court needs to balance the invasion of the employees’ legitimate expectations of privacy against the government’s need for supervision, control, and the efficient operation of the workplace. A public employer’s intrusions on the constitutionally protected privacy interests of government employees for non-investigatory, work-related purposes, as well as for investigations of work-related misconduct, should be judged by the standard of reasonableness under all the circumstances. Under this reasonableness standard, both the inception and the scope of the intrusion must be reasonable. Ordinarily, a search of an employee’s office by a supervisor will be “justified at its inception” when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the employee is guilty of work-related misconduct, or that the search is necessary for a non-investigatory work-related purpose. The search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the nature of the misconduct.

Applying the above standards and principles, the Court then addressed the following issues: (1) Did petitioner have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his office and computer files?; and (2) Was the search authorized by the respondent Civil Service Commission Chair, the copying of the contents of the hard drive on petitioner’s computer, reasonable in its inception and scope? Here, the relevant surrounding circumstances to consider include: (1) the employee’s relationship to the item seized; (2) whether the item was in the immediate control of the employee when it was seized; and (3) whether the employee took actions to maintain his privacy in the item.

The Court answered the first issue in the negative. Petitioner failed to prove that he had an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy either in his office or government-issued computer which contained his personal files. Petitioner did not allege that he had a separate enclosed office which he did not share with anyone, or that his office was always locked and not open to other employees or visitors. Neither did he allege that he used passwords or adopted any means to prevent other employees from accessing his computer files. On the contrary, he submits that being in the public assistance office of the CSC, he normally would have visitors in his office. Even assuming that petitioner had at least a subjective expectation of privacy in his computer as he claims, the same is negated by the presence of policy regulating the use of office computers. The CSC had implemented a policy that puts its employees on notice that they have no expectation of privacy in anything they create, store, send or receive on the office computers. Under this policy, the CSC may monitor the use of the computer resources using both automated or human means. This implies that on-the-spot inspections may be done to ensure that computer resources were used only for legitimate business purposes.

On the second issue, the Court answered in the affirmative. The search of petitioner’s computer files was conducted in connection with an investigation of work-related misconduct. Under the facts obtaining, the Court held that the search conducted on petitioner’s computer was justified at its inception and in scope. Briccio “Ricky” A. Pollo vs. Chairperson Karina Constantino-David, et al., G.R. No. 181881. October 18, 2011.

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