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Florida Appeals Court Holds Warrant Required to Search Car’s “Black Box”

Last month, a Florida appellate court held that police need to obtain a warrant before downloading information recorded in a car’s “black box.” Specifically, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach concluded that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information stored in the black box, and downloading that information without a warrant absent exigent circumstances violates the Fourth Amendment.

In the fall of 2013, the defendant was involved in a high speed accident that resulted in the death of his passenger. Afterwards, his vehicle was impounded. Roughly a week after the crash, law enforcement downloaded the information stored on the car’s black box without first obtaining a warrant. A car’s black box records information regarding numerous issues, such as speed, steering, and braking.

The driver was subsequently charged with vehicular homicide and DUI manslaughter. He moved to suppress the downloaded data, arguing that authorities could not access this information without first obtaining a warrant or, alternatively, his consent. The state contended that the driver did not have a privacy interest in the downloaded information, meaning the Fourth Amendment did not apply. The trial court sided with the driver and granted the motion.

The Florida appeals court explained that a car’s black box is similar to other electronic storage devices, such as cell phones, for which courts have recognized a reasonable privacy expectation. The emerging trend, the appeals court explained, is to require a warrant to search such devices.

Due to the very personal and vast nature of the information cell phones contain, the Florida appeals court explained, they are materially different from the containers analyzed in other cases, such as cigarette packs. Exceptions to the warrant requirement, the court cautioned, must remain precisely and cautiously drawn.

The court reasoned that although black boxes don’t store the same extent of information as a cell phone, the rationale for requiring a warrant to search a cell phone is nonetheless applicable. Black boxes document more than what is voluntarily shared with the public, and the data they contain is meaningfully different from other car parts.

The opinion cited to court cases in other states that have addressed whether police needed warrants to get information stored on cell phones. A California state court, for example, held in 2013 that the defendant lacked a privacy interest in his vehicle’s speed and braking data obtained from a sensing machine after his accident. The Florida appeals court, however, found that case unpersuasive in this driver’s situation.

The Florida appeals court concluded that the black box surveillance of driving conditions could establish a reasonable expectation of privacy in the recorded information. Considering that the information is difficult to access, and not all of the recorded information is exposed to the public, the driver had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The court therefore agreed with the trial court that a warrant was required before police could search the black box.

If you have been charged with a DUI offense in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

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Illinois Resident Sentenced to 30 Months in Prison Following Fatal DUI Crash, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, March 1, 2017.

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