For decades now, vehicles made in the United States have contained what are called event data recorders (“EDRs”) or — more informally — “black boxes.” These devices contain sensing and diagnostic equipment and computer programs that track, record and save various information with respect to the vehicle and any crash that the vehicle experiences. Some EDRs function by continuously recording data and storing it; others function by continuously overwriting information as time progresses; others only record data if some crash event occurs. Recently, some devices do not store locally, but rather are connected to the internet and send the data directly to the manufacturer. See here for an article about Tesla vehicles.
Since about 2012, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required that EDRs be installed in all vehicles and has required that all EDRs collect certain data including
- Time-of-impact speed
- Time and force of brake application
- Engine speed
- The angle of the steering wheel
- Whether the occupants were restrained by seat belts
- Time and deployment of airbags
Often, the EDRs record more types and categories of data than what is required by the NHTSA.
SC Criminal DUI Defense — Does Law Enforcement Need a Warrant?
With respect to criminal law — such as DUI-related crimes — it is increasingly common for prosecutors to seek to download and obtain the data from the vehicle’s EDR. One question that arises, then, is whether a warrant is needed before law enforcement can access the data?
South Carolina courts have not addressed this question yet. However, last year, a Florida court ruled that a warrant WAS needed before the EDR data could be accessed. The case was State v. Worsham, 227 So. 3d 602 (Fla. Court of Appeals, 4th Dist. 2017). In that case, the defendant was the driver of a vehicle involved in a high-speed crash that killed his passenger. The defendant was eventually charged with DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. About two weeks after the crash, law enforcement officers downloaded the data from the vehicle’s EDR but did so without a first obtaining a warrant. Because of the lack of a warrant, the defendant’s attorneys sought to suppress the evidence obtained from the EDR.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Florida Court of Appeals reversed. The court began with the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizures. The court discussed the fact that the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment are based on subjective expectations of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable.
With respect to a vehicle’s EDR, the court held that citizens do, in fact, have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the data contained thereon. The court contrasted this with an example of one’s privacy expectations concerning the exterior of your vehicle. The court stated that the exterior of your car is “is thrust into the public eye” and, as such, is not covered by any reasonable expectation of privacy. Such is not the case with the data contained on your vehicle’s EDR.
The court went further and said that a car’s EDR device is similar to other electronic storage devices — like our cell phones — that many courts now protected under the Fourth Amendment.
We here at The Law Offices of H. Chase Harbin predict that, if and when confronted with the question, South Carolina courts will also require a valid warrant before law enforcement can access an EDR here in Greenville.
Call The DUI Law Office Of H. Chase Harbin Today
For more information, contact the proven criminal defense attorneys at The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin. Contact our office today via email or by telephone. We have offices in Greenville and Pickens, South Carolina.
Chase Harbin is a Criminal Defense Lawyer who practices in Pickens and Greenville, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 17 years now. Chase Harbin believes in defending the accused. Learn more about his experience by clicking here.