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Atlanta Criminal Defense Lawyers > Blog > Criminal Defense > Do Police Need a Warrant to Search Your Car’s “Black Box”?

Do Police Need a Warrant to Search Your Car’s “Black Box”?


Many modern motor vehicles contain an electronic control module (ECM) or electronic control unit (ECU). These devices not only help to control the various electrical systems within a car or truck, they also record a wealth of information about the vehicle’s operation. In a sense, they function much like the famous “black boxes” used to record data on airplanes.

Court of Appeals Throws Out Search Warrant in Fatal Traffic Accident Case

Just as aircraft accident investigators use black boxes to help determine the probable cause of a plane crash, many local law enforcement agencies here in Georgia similarly try to use a car or truck’s ECM to investigate the cause of a motor vehicle accident. Such searches, however, require the police to obtain a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. And as with any warrant application, the officer must demonstrate they have “probable cause” to believe the search will uncover evidence of some crime.

Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a magistrate improperly issued a search warrant for an ECM and consequently, the state could not use evidence gathered from the device at trial. The case, Harris v. State, originated with a two-car accident. The defendant was driving one of the vehicles involved, and his passenger died as a result of their injuries. Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with a number of offenses including vehicular homicide, driving under the influence of alcohol, and multiple traffic violations.

A Georgia State Trooper assigned to investigate the accident applied for a search warrant to examine the ECM data from the defendant’s vehicle. The application explained that the other driver–i.e., not the defendant–made a left turn and collided with the defendant’s vehicle. The other driver then fled the scene before the trooper arrived.

As the Court of Appeals explained, nothing in this application pointed to any possible crime committed by the defendant. Indeed, it was the other driver who apparently committed a crime by leaving the scene of an accident where someone died. The trooper’s application did not even hint at the defendant committing a traffic violation, much less a more serious felony. Taking all of this into account, the Court of Appeals said there was no probable cause to support a search warrant for the defendant’s ECM.

Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today

Even when the police have a search warrant, there may be a legal or technical defect that renders the results of any subsequent search inadmissible in court. That is why it is important to work with an experienced Atlanta criminal defense attorney who will carefully scrutinize the prosecution’s evidence and advise you on the best strategy for defending yourself in court. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.



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