A warrantless search of car data after a fatal crash violated the Fourth Amendment, the Georgia Supreme Court said, reversing lower state courts that had ruled against a motion to suppress the data.
The state’s high court ruled Oct. 21 in Mobley v. State that a trial court “should have granted the motion to suppress” evidence of data that law enforcement got from a car’s electronic data recording device without a warrant at the crash scene. It reversed the Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision affirming the trial court’s ruling that the evidence was admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine.
The case is the latest example of how courts around the country are grappling with how the Fourth Amendment should apply to emerging technologies and data collection.
The high court’s decision “is a really strong reaffirmation of the importance of Fourth Amendment rights in the digital age,” Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued on behalf of friends of the court, said. “It holds the government to the warrant requirement, which is an important protection against unjustified search.”
One of the questions before the Georgia Supreme Court was whether retrieving data from the airbag control module at the scene of a 2014 crash was a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment and, if so, whether the retrieval without a warrant was unreasonable.
Before the two cars were removed from the scene, officers retrieved data from their airbag control modules without a warrant. The data showed that one of the drivers, Victor Lamont Mobley, was traveling about 100 miles per hour. An investigator the following day applied for and received a warrant to search the cars and physically remove the airbag control modules.
Mobley was convicted of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and speeding. The trial court had denied Mobley’s motion to suppress the data, and the appeals court upheld the judgment.
The state Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to review the appellate court’s decision. “We conclude that the trial court erred when it denied the motion to suppress. The judgment of the Court of Appeals, therefore, is reversed,” Justice Keith R. Blackwell wrote for the court.
The high court found that recovering the data without a warrant “implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy.” An investigator entered the car’s passenger compartment and connected a device to download the data, and a “physical intrusion of a personal motor vehicle” in a law enforcement investigation “generally is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment under the traditional common law trespass standard,” the court said.
The court also found that the search was unreasonable, forbidden by the Fourth Amendment. The investigator had no warrant when he retrieved the data at the scene, and “the State has failed to identify any recognized exception to the warrant requirement” that applies to the facts of the case, the court said.
The court also considered questions involving Georgia criminal procedure on suppressing illegally seized evidence.
“Putting aside the state criminal procedural issues and the sufficiency of the evidence against the particular defendant in this case, the decision is an important follow-up to the Supreme Court’s guidance in the area of digital privacy that it set out in recent years in the Riley and Carpenter decisions,” Jeffrey Neuburger, co-head of Proskauer Rose LLP’s technology, media and telecommunications group, said in an email.
In Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court held in June 2018 that the government’s obtaining of historical cell-site records for a robbery suspect constituted a Fourth Amendment search. In Riley v. California, a landmark 2014 case, the court held that the police can’t conduct a warrantless search of the contents of a cell phone seized from a suspect who’s been arrested.
“As the U.S. Supreme Court has done, the Mobley decision brings Fourth Amendment law into the new century and recognizes the ‘reasonableness’ of an individual’s expectation of privacy in digital data collected by his or her automobile,” Neuburger said.
Mobley v. State, 2019 BL 401044, Ga., S18G1546., 10/21/19