Court Holds No Expectation of Privacy on Work Computer, Even for “Personal” Information

State v. M.A., 954 A.2d 503 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2008)

In this case of first impression in New Jersey, defendant argued that personal information found on his work computers should be suppressed because his employer had no authority to consent to the search.  Defendant argued that he, not his employer, owned the computers and that he therefore had a reasonable expectation of privacy as to the personal information stored on them.  Finding that the employer, in fact, owned the computers and therefore had every right to consent to the search, the court denied defendant’s motion to suppress.

Defendant was initially hired by his employer as a part time bookkeeper but was eventually hired full time and given additional computer responsibilities because he was “an expert” and maintained a used computer sales business on the side. Upon being hired, the defendant was made aware that “the computers or anything else in the office is company property.”  Eventually, the defendant sold at least ten computers to his employer.  Among those were the laptop and the desktop at issue in the case.  In addition to his employer’s password protection, the defendant created his own password protected areas on both computers and used them to store personal information, at least some of which indicated theft from his employer.  When the employer discovered that the defendant had fraudulently raised his own salary, the defendant was immediately fired.  His employer subsequently discovered evidence of additional and extensive theft and contacted the police.  The employer provided police with written consent to search the two computers.  On them was found additional evidence of the defendant’s illegal activities.

Defendant argued that he was the true owner of the computers and that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy on them, especially in the password protected areas.  In support of his contention, the defendant argued that he had reimbursed the company for the purchase of the laptop and that he kept it at home three out of five days a week.  As to the desktop, the defendant argued that it had merely been delivered to his employer’s business because no one was available at the defendant’s computer business to sign for it and that he brought it to work when a temporary intern was using the computer in his office.  Rejecting his arguments as “implausible”, the court found ownership properly resided with the employer in light of several facts, including, among other things, the employer’s payment for the computers, the placing of the laptop on the depreciation schedule of the employer’s corporate tax returns and the specific instruction to defendant that all computers were company property.  Accordingly, the court upheld the validity of the warrantless search and denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

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