Florida police need a warrant for ‘black box’ data in cars

Police in Florida violated the Fourth Amendment by downloading a DUI suspect’s car’s black box data.

Motor vehicles today have become highly sophisticated machines resembling, in many ways, giant computers on four wheels. What many drivers may not realize is that most cars are now equipped with what is sometimes referred to as a 'black box.' As with airplane black boxes, these car black boxes contain important data that can help police and investigators determine the cause of an accident. However, there are serious privacy concerns about police accessing such data. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Florida DUI incident affirmed that police need a search warrant before they can access a car's black box.

Background of the case

The case involves a fatal accident that occurred on October 6, 2013 in Delray Beach. On that night a Fiat carrying a driver and his passenger struck the wall of a canal bridge and then flipped over three times. The passenger died in the crash. The driver survived, but he has retained no memory of the accident, according to the Sun Sentinel.

The driver's blood was tested two hours after the crash for alcohol and he allegedly had a blood alcohol content of 0.17, well above the legal limit. However, police then accessed the data held in the Fiat's black box to determine whether the driver had been speeding. The driver was eventually charged with DUI manslaughter.

Breach of privacy rights

However, the fact that police accessed the Fiat's black box without first obtaining a search warrant raised the question of whether or not the driver's privacy rights had been violated and whether the data from the black box could be admitted as evidence during the trial.

A Palm Beach County Circuit judge suppressed the evidence and, as the Orlando Sentinel reports, that decision was upheld by the 4th District Court of Appeal. That appeals court ruled that drivers have a reasonable expectation that their car's black box data is protected under the Fourth Amendment. The court noted that other cases have already found that police need a warrant to access other types of electronic data, such as data held in cell phones.

While prosecutors attempted to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the nation's top court declined to hear it, which means that the 4th District Court of Appeal's ruling stands and police do need a warrant in order to download a car's black box data.

Criminal defense help

For those who are facing criminal charges, it is important to talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. As the above article shows, it is imperative that defendants' rights be protected and that police act within the bounds of the law. An experienced defense attorney can help clients ensure their rights are respected and that they have a dedicated advocate on their side.