Most people have heard of the “black box” or “event data recorder” after airplane crashes. It is a device that records information about the plane that helps investigators determine how and why a crash occurred. What many people may not know is that cars often have black box recorders as well. Most cars manufactured in the last few years come equipped with the black box recorder. The data on these devices can be used to determine the speed of a vehicle, steering and braking information and other data that can also help determine why a motor vehicle crash occurred.
The black box data could be useful to police in investigating certain crimes. For instance, that data could help the police investigate a DUI manslaughter case, a fleeing and eluding case or an aggravated battery with a motor vehicle case. However, the police cannot just go into a person’s vehicle and collect that data. The police might be able to seize a person’s vehicle if it is evidence of a crime. Alternatively, the police might take custody of a vehicle rather than leave it on the side of the road after arresting the driver. In these situations, the police are normally permitted to search the vehicle as part of a legal inventory search- a search of the vehicle to make sure nothing dangerous is in the vehicle and make sure the suspect’s property is inventoried and kept safe to return to the suspect when the case is finished.
The black box data are different. Collecting that data is more complicated than searching the vehicle and removing personal items for safekeeping. The key to whether the search warrant requirement is triggered is whether the suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area or thing to be searched. Florida courts have held that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their vehicles and the interior of their vehicles. Florida courts have also ruled that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in electronic storage devices such as cell phones, Ipads and computers. A black box recorder falls into both of these categories. As a result, if the police want to obtain the data in these black box recorders that are relevant to a crash that involves criminal activity, the police will either need to get a search warrant for the data or get consent from the owner of the vehicle. Failure to do so will likely result in all of the evidence from the recorder being inadmissible in court.