Are you aware that your car may have a “black box” that records information about your vehicle usage? Most recently manufactured vehicles are equipped with these devices, as they were mandated for new vehicles in 2014. Officer Scott Parent, of the California Highway Patrol, says that these devices are capable of preserving data that could significantly assist accident investigators.
The technical name “event data recorder” (EDR) has been used since the 1990s, when they first became available. Essentially, they are computers that document and store vehicle-related data. In the early years of development many were designed to solely capture data relating to when airbags were deployed; however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now requires that they be capable of recording 15 types of events. Some of these include engine RPM level, speed, seat belt usage, braking, crash severity and more. These devices are placed in positions where access is limited, that likely require special equipment to remove.
A recent case in Florida, State v. Worsham, raised an interesting issue. How does retrieval of information from event data recorders apply under the 4th Amendment? Worsham, the defendant, was involved in a serious accident and had his vehicle impounded. Shortly after, the authorities retrieved the recorder from his vehicle and accessed the data. Worsham faced charges including drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter, and law enforcement sought to admit the data as evidence.
This court in Florida ruled by a two to one majority that a warrant would be required for accessing such data. Part of their basis was that the “black box” information is largely recognized as having a privacy expectation. The court cited several reasons for 4th Amendment protection in this matter. The data recorded in these devices is not available to the public, neither it easily accessed and interpreted. The process is far more intensive than simply examining the condition of a vehicle's tires, for example. The data retained in these devices is generally of marginal quality in comparison to capabilities of today's electronic devices, yet the overall expectation of privacy exists.
Those in opposition to the court's decision say that EDRs do not contain information of a personal nature and see no reason that access be restricted without a warrant. Their reasons also include the following:
- The information obtained by law enforcement from the defendant's vehicle was not information that he or any vehicle owner would have determined was private
- The obtained data was not personally related to the defendant, had no password protection, nor was it gathered for his benefit
- The vehicle manufacturer, in accordance with NHTSA requirements, installed the device for purposes including vehicle safety and injury prevention
- Vehicles are subjected to regulation, thus operators should expect some intrusion of their privacy associated with them