Approximately 96% of all vehicles manufactured since 2013 are equipped with devices called event data recorders-or “black boxes”-that keep track of data such as when the driver brakes, steering, engine rpm during a crash. More sophisticated black boxes record a wealth of information about a person’s driving habits ranging from where they go, how fast they drive, and even whether the vehicles systems are in working order. In the hands of law enforcement officers or prosecutors, such data can become powerful evidence in a criminal case.
Last week, a Florida appeals court ruled-in a case called State v. Worsham– that the contents of a vehicle’s black box are protected by the Fourth Amendment, meaning that police officers are generally required to get a warrant before they can search them. The case involved a defendant charged with vehicular homicide, whose black box was searched after police impounded his vehicle. His criminal defense attorney successfully moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the black box recorder, because the police did not obtain a warrant until after they performed the search.
The major dispute surrounding this issue is that the Fourth Amendment generally does not protect information people willingly discloses to the public. The Worsham court found, however, that drivers had a privacy interest in their black box data, since these devices contain enormous amounts of information that is very difficult to extract without the owner’s permission. A person’s location on a public roadway is generally not considered private. However, the court relied on language from United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who suggested that long-term monitoring of a vehicle’s movement could intrude on a privacy interest.
With black-box recorders becoming ubiquitous in modern vehicles, the data they contain are a go-to source of information for investigators considering traffic offenses. If the rationale of the Worsham court takes hold in Florida, warrantless searches of these black boxes will be grounds for suppression of the data law enforcement retrieves from them.