Court Rules on Constitutionality of Black Box Search and Seizure

A court in Florida has made a unique ruling on a constitutional issue that is likely to become widespread in Maryland and throughout the nation. Once again, it appears that courts will start struggling with how to interpret constitutional criminal law, with modern trends in technology.

What is a Black Box?

The case involves whether police can search and seize a car’s black box. You may have heard of an airplane’s black box. It is literally a small box that collects vital data on an airplane’s speed, trajectory, and all major operations that are happening. In case of a crash, the box usually survives intact and can be retrieved for investigators to piece together how the accident happened.

Today’s modern cars have their own black boxes. They too record everything that is happening in a car, including the car’s speed, braking, and controls. Often these boxes are retrieved in personal injury cases, but a Florida case recently dealt with whether police may lawfully search and seize a vehicle’s black box without a warrant.

Search and Seizure of a Black Box

The case involved a driver whose vehicle was impounded after a DUI. While the car was impounded, police took and extracted information from its black box without a warrant. The driver challenged this as an illegal search and seizure.

The state argued that taking the black box was no different than taking and inspecting a car’s tires or brakes, which would not require a warrant. But the Florida Court believed that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in a black box’s information. The court noted that information on a black box needed to be extracted and interpreted. It was not something readily viewable and available to anybody in the general public.

The justices equated the black boxes with other devices that store electronic data, like cell phones, which do need a warrant before police can search or seize them.

The court noted the lack of any similar cases on the issue in the entire country. However, the driver’s attorney did point to a U.S. Supreme Court case that requires police obtain warrants before putting a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle.

Disagreement on Court

One justice disagreed with the majority, stating that unlike cell phones, black boxes are not password protected, a driver’s personal information is not stored on it, and the purpose of the data collection is not for the driver, it is for the benefit of collecting data for driver and highway safety. The justice pointed out that many people are not even aware that their car has a black box. And unlike a cellphone, most drivers do not wipe or clear the black box before selling the car.

We do not know if this case will be further appealed. But like other technologies, it is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will need to weigh in to determine how the constitution affects black box searches.

You have constitutional rights if you are arrested or charged with a crime. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case if you are charged with a crime or arrested in Maryland.