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Vehicle black box is a serious witness

Recognized as presenting information in airplane accidents, an event data recorder or black box is now standard equipment in American vehicles. Suspects may begin to claim that seizure of black box data is an illegal search and seizure because police are now equipped to gather and use this evidence.

Beginning in 2018, black boxes were installed as standard equipment in most American cars. These devices record every time a motorist presses a button or makes a maneuver. This data is intended to be readily-accessible after an accident and will disclose information such as seatbelt closure, usage of brakes and travel speed.

A Georgia appeals court upheld a warrantless search of this data in a vehicular homicide, reckless driving and speeding prosecution. Police obtained black box data on airbag deployment, speed, brake status engine status, maximum deceleration to impact and other information without a warrant.

The Court ruled that the fourth amendment did not guard this information because any observer could observe the suspect's driving. Its ruling was limited to the facts of this case and the court warned police to err on the side of obtaining a warrant because black box technology will ultimately obtain protected information.

However, a Florida appeals court ruled last year that a warrant was required for black box data seized in a manslaughter and vehicular homicide prosecution. The court recognized that the data in this device is difficult to obtain, requires the use of expensive equipment to retrieve and that an expert must download it. While some of the data reflects information that the public can view, this device also contains private data where the driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Black box data sometimes provide an incomplete picture of events because current technology only keep a few seconds of memory and may omit behavior occurring before recording. For example, information that a motorist was driving within the speed limit before recording is omitted but a sudden acceleration to avoid a collision is contained in the data. Juries may place undue emphasis on incomplete data and drivers may be tempted to waive their Fifth Amendment rights and testify to fill in gaps.

Motorists should seek legal assistance to review and contest this evidence. An attorney can help fight the expected increase in use in this technology.

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