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Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Motorist Black Box Data Privacy
Justices in Georgia rule that police must obtain a search warrant before downloading data from the black box of an automobile.

Victor Mobley
It only took a few months after hearing arguments for Georgia's highest court to conclude that black box data from automobiles is worthy of privacy protection. On Monday, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Henry County Police Department violated the rights of Victor Lamont Mobley when officers downloaded vehicle speed data from his 2014 Dodge Charger on December 15, 2014.

Mobley had been driving on Flippen Road when a 1999 Chevrolet Corvette pulled out from a private driveway in front of him. The collision that followed took the lives of the Corvette's driver and passenger. None of the evidence at the accident scene, including witness statements, suggested Mobley was speeding. Sergeant David Gagnon wanted to be sure, so without first obtaining a warrent, he told his officers to download data from the Charger's black box. The device suggested Mobley had been traveling 97 MPH.

This finding was used to charge Mobley with vehicular homicide, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Mobley insisted the charge should be thrown out because the warrantless search of his property violated the Fourth Amendment. The high court justices agreed.

"A personal motor vehicle is plainly among the 'effects' with which the Fourth Amendment -- as it historically was understood -- is concerned," Justice Keith R. Blackwell wrote for the court. "The retrieval of data without a warrant at the scene of the collision was a search and seizure that implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy."

The justices noted that there was no urgent need to download the data. The black box permanently stores speed data whenever the airbags deploy. The crumpled remains of the Charger were also not at risk of driving away. The court also rejected the lower court ruling's reasoning that it was "inevitable" that the black box data would have been recovered in the course of the investigation with a lawfully obtained search warrant, and that the early peek at the results did not affect the outcome of the situation.

"Absent proof that the officers were actively pursuing a warrant at that point in time, the mere fact that Investigator Thornton actually obtained a warrant on the following day is not enough to bring this case within the inevitable discovery exception," Justice Blackwell wrote. "Allowing law enforcement to use a warrant from after-the-fact to justify an earlier search would threaten to vitiate the warrant requirement."

It was standard practice in the county for officers to download such data without a warrant.

Source: PDF File Mobley v. Georgia (Georgia Supreme Court, 10/21/2019)

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