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Defending Vehicular Homicide Charges: 'The Black Box'

Defending vehicular homicide charges in Tennessee is a complex area of criminal defense. The lawyer must be experienced in both blood alcohol testing and accident reconstruction. Today's post focuses on one component of accident reconstruction.

Professor Orin Kerr wrote an excellent post on the Fourth Amendment and the black box. First, what is a black box? A black box is a name for the event data recorder. They first appeared on airplanes. Since then, event data recorders have been installed on cars, trucks, and tractor trailers. Most cars built in the last several years have an event data recorder installed. The black box captures 15 data points at the time of a car crash. Some of the data points include speed, steering, braking, acceleration, seat belt use, and whether the airbag deployed. All these data points are critical in a vehicular homicide case.

The main question that Professor Kerr addresses is whether the data on the black box is protected under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Consitution. In State v. Worsham, the Florida courts have recently addressed the issue. The Florida courts held that a search of the black box data requires a search warrant. Here is the court's reasoning from portions of the opinion:

A car's black box is analogous to other electronic storage devices for which courts have recognized a reasonable expectation of privacy. Modern technology facilitates the storage of large quantities of information on small, portable devices. The emerging trend is to require a warrant to search these devices. See Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014) (requiring warrant to search cell phone seized incident to arrest); Smallwood, 113 So. 3d 724 (requiring warrant to search cell phone in search incident to arrest); State v. K.C., 207 So. 3d 951 (requiring warrant to search an "abandoned" but locked cell phone).

The majority offers several rationales for its decision, but this seems to be the main one:

Extracting and interpreting the information from a car's black box is not like putting a car on a lift and examining the brakes or tires. Because the recorded data is not exposed to the public, and because the stored data is so difficult to extract and interpret, we hold there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, protected by the Fourth Amendment, which required law enforcement in the absence of exigent circumstances to obtain a warrant before extracting the information from an impounded vehicle.

Although electronic data recorders do not yet store the same quantity of information as a cell phone, nor is it of the same personal nature, the rationale for requiring a warrant to search a cell phone is informative in determining whether a warrant is necessary to search an immobilized vehicle's data recorder. These recorders document more than what is voluntarily conveyed to the public and the information is inherently different from the tangible "mechanical" parts of a vehicle. Just as cell phones evolved to contain more and more personal information, as the electronic systems in cars have gotten more complex, the data recorders are able to record more information. The difficulty in extracting such information buttresses an expectation of privacy.

Professor kerr posed some great questions apout the opinion. Was the search covered under the containoer doctorine? Was the information contained on the data recorder exposed to public observation? Time will tell if this opinion is truly the law on black boxes. The takeaway point is it requires a lot of skill and experience in handling vehicular homicide cases.