A court in Florida has ruled that, unlike a physical examination of brakes and tires of a vehicle, authorities need a warrant to extract data from vehicle black boxes:
An interesting decision has been reached by the Florida Appeals Court as to Fourth Amendment protections for vehicle "black boxes." The black boxes -- which are a mandatory requirement in new vehicles -- record a variety of data in the event of a crash. (h/t FourthAmendment.com)Outstanding.
Charles Worsham Jr. was the driver in a crash in which his passenger was killed. His vehicle was seized and impounded by police. Twelve days later, police accessed the data in the black box without obtaining a warrant. Worsham challenged the lawfulness of the warrantless search. The police maintained the black box was full of third-party records which required no warrant or consent from the vehicle's owner.
The court sees the issue differently. In a relative rarity, the state Appeals Court decides [PDF] to get out ahead of the issue, rather than wait for precedential decisions to trickle down from the federal courts. It looks at the data harvested by the black box and suggests the amount gathered will only increase in the coming years. Rather than wait until then to make a call on the Fourth Amendment merits, it draws the line now.
Citing the Supreme Court's Riley decision (which introduced a warrant requirement for cell phone searches), the court concludes the crash data contained in the black box has an expectation of privacy.
A car’s black box is analogous to other electronic storage devices for which courts have recognized a reasonable expectation of privacy. Modern technology facilitates the storage of large quantities of information on small, portable devices. The emerging trend is to require a warrant to search these devices.Also of importance is the difficulty of extracting the information from the black boxes.
Although electronic data recorders do not yet store the same quantity of information as a cell phone, nor is it of the same personal nature, the rationale for requiring a warrant to search a cell phone is informative in determining whether a warrant is necessary to search an immobilized vehicle’s data recorder. These recorders document more than what is voluntarily conveyed to the public and the information is inherently different from the tangible “mechanical” parts of a vehicle. Just as cell phones evolved to contain more and more personal information, as the electronic systems in cars have gotten more complex, the data recorders are able to record more information.
Extracting and interpreting the information from a car’s black box is not like putting a car on a lift and examining the brakes or tires. Because the recorded data is not exposed to the public, and because the stored data is so difficult to extract and interpret, we hold there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, protected by the Fourth Amendment, which required law enforcement in the absence of exigent circumstances to obtain a warrant before extracting the information from an impounded vehicle.Not only that, but recent legislation (the Driver Privacy Act of 2015) specifically states that the contents of data recorders belong to the vehicle's owner, not the manufacturer or any other third party.