In a landmark decision on vehicle data privacy, the Georgia Supreme Court on October 21, 2019 overturned a Georgia Court of Appeals decision that could have made it legal for police to take any data as they wished from private vehicles without a warrant. Mobley v. State.[i]
The case arose from a fatal vehicle crash in December 2014, when a man named Victor Mobley collided into a Corvette pulling out from a driveway with two people inside, both of whom died from the crash. Initially, after a preliminary assessment and discussions with witnesses, the police thought it was likely the Corvette pulled out without warning and Mobley was unable to stop in time, as nothing had indicated Mobley was speeding. However, before the vehicles were removed from the scene of the collision, an officer, with no warrant, plugged a Crash Data Recorder into Mobley’s car, and from data downloaded from the airbag control modules (ACM), the officer found that Mobley had been driving nearly 100 mph at the time of the crash. The police obtained a warrant for the data after-the-fact. Mobley was convicted on two counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, and he appealed, arguing the trial court should have suppressed evidence of the data taken from his car as it was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The trial court struck down Mobley’s motion to suppress, finding that under the “inevitable discovery doctrine” exception to warrant requirement, as the police eventually lawfully obtained a warrant for the same data anyway, it was inevitable that they would find the data on Mobley’s car. The court reasoned that the officer testified he “always [sought] such a warrant in accidents involving fatalities,” and the warrant was not issued dependent on the data downloaded from the ACM. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and further decided that Mobley had no reasonable expectation of privacy of the ACM data in his vehicle and, therefore, the retrieval of the data was not a search and seizure at all. The court reasoned that the data “simply reflected the operation and movements of the car in the moments immediately preceding the collision” – movements that could be observed, albeit with less precision, by any member of the public – and “[a] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.”
In an in-depth decision, the Georgia Supreme Court pointed out faulty premises and logical fallacies underlying the court of appeals’ decision. The lower court held a misguided notion that“reasonable expectations of privacy” have supplanted private rights under the common law (trespassory test) as the sole standard by which we determine whether a government act amounts to a search.” However, if the government trespasses upon the rights of individuals to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” the government act will generally amount to a search that implicates the Fourth Amendment. To obtain the data, the court reasoned, the officer entered the passenger compartment of Mobley’s personal motor vehicle – “plainly among the ‘effects’ with which the Fourth Amendment – as it historically was understood – is concerned.”
Deciding that the act was a search, the court further held that it was unreasonable as it was done without a warrant. The automobile exception to the warrant requirement was inapplicable, the court reasoned, because the vehicle was in the custody and control of law enforcement and Mobley was unable to operate it at the time the data was pulled. Further, the court held the state failed to establish any real exigency to satisfy the exigent circumstances exception, as there was no evidence that the delay to obtain a warrant would have resulted in the loss or corruption of any of the data. Lastly, the court determined that the inevitable discovery exception did not apply because the record did not show that the police were preparing an application for a search warrant or even contemplating a warrant at the time the officer retrieved the data, nor was there evidence the police department actually had a policy or consistent practice to routinely obtain warrants for ACM data after fatal crashes. In light of the state’s failure to establish any exception, the court held the exclusionary rule mandated the suppression of the evidence pulled from the ACM.
Event recorders, like the one from which the police in Mobley downloaded data, are currently installed in about 96 percent of cars. Police have been able to conduct digital searches in cars without a warrant ever since a US Supreme Court decision in 1925 stating police only need probable cause to search vehicles. A court case in Florida in 2017 held the Fourth Amendment protects people’s privacy in their vehicle’s black box data, but courts in New York and California have disagreed. As our vehicles collect more and more data than ever about drivers and collisions, this precedent from Georgia’s highest court may spur a rethinking of vehicle data privacy throughout the country.
[i] S.E.2d, 2019 WL 5301819.