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What Is a Car ‘Black Box’ and Can It Affect Me in a DUI Case?

Written by Moses & Rooth on November 15, 2017

We have all heard about the “black boxes” used in airplanes to record flight data. In the event of a crash, safety officials use the black boxes–which are actually orange in color to enable easier recovery–to assist in their investigation of the accident.

Along those same lines, most new automobiles sold in the United States have their own black boxes or “event data recorders.” Unlike the models used in airplanes, which can record an entire flight, a car’s black box typically only records technical information for just a few seconds before, during, and after an accident. In other words, the event data recorder can tell you how fast the vehicle was going at the moment of impact, and even if the driver was wearing a seatbelt, but it will not provide any information on something that occurred five minutes before the accident.

Florida Appeals Court Holds Police Need Warrant Before Looking at Car Data

Many Florida residents may not even be aware their vehicle has an event data recorder. But law enforcement is certainly aware of them. And in many car accident and DUI cases, police and prosecutors are eager to get their hands on the black box data as potential evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

The law regarding the use of such data remains in early stages of development. In a high-profile Massachusetts case from 2011, the state’s lieutenant governor was cited for an accident after his vehicle’s black box revealed he was “driving over 100 miles an hour and was not wearing a seatbelt” at the time, according to the New York Times. The Times further noted there was no state law governing access to the event recorder’s data.

But what about Florida? Earlier this year, a divided state appeals court panel held that a trial judge in Palm Beach properly suppressed evidence that police gathered from a defendant’s black box without his consent or a warrant. The defendant faced DUI manslaughter charges in connection with a fatal October 2013 car accident.

Police impounded the defendant’s vehicle following the accident. Twelve days later, the police downloaded and analyzed the data from the car’s black box. Despite having the car in their custody for nearly two weeks, the police made no effort to obtain a warrant to “search” the data recorders or retrieve its data. In fact, the police waited at least four more days after conducting their download to finally apply for a warrant, which the court denied as moot.

The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled this search violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment, among other things, protects an individual’s right to privacy. Here, the Court said that extended to the data contained in a black box. Since the data itself is “not exposed to the public” and “the stored data is so difficult to extract and interpret,” the Court said that drivers have “a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.” The police therefore cannot use data from such devices as part of a DUI investigation without a warrant or unless there are “exigent circumstances,” which were not present in this case.

Are You Facing DUI Charges in the Orlando Area?

The Fourth District’s decision is unlikely to be the last word on this issue. Indeed, the appeals court acknowledged it was the first court in Florida to directly address this question. Other state courts–including the Florida Supreme Court–are likely to weigh in over the coming years.

If you are faced with DUI or similar charges following a car accident, it is important to speak with an Orlando criminal defense lawyer who understands how to deal with these situations. Moses and Rooth, Attorneys at Law, help people throughout Orlando and Central Florida fight drunk driving allegations. Call us at (407) 377-0150 to discuss your case with us today.

Posted Under: DUI

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