The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before pulling data from an automobile as part of a crash investigation, overturning a verdict previously rendered and later upheld by lower courts.

The decision stems from the criminal case Mobley v. State, in which defendant Victor Mobley was convicted of two vehicular homicides, after data collected from his automobile’s airbag control modules (ACMs) showed he was driving over 100 MPH when the fatal crash occurred.

Mobley had requested to suppress the ACM data, claiming that the warrantless gathering of the information was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, but a Henry County trial court denied that motion. The Court of Appeals subsequently upheld this decision, with one judge opining that the collection of ACM data was not a search-and-seizure scenario at all because the Mobley had no reasonable expectation that his vehicular data would remain private.

However, the state Supreme Court resolved that the lower courts erred on this interpretation and on numerous other fronts. A decision authored by Justice Keith Blackwell asserted that when an investigator Jason Hatcher physically entered the passenger compartment of Mobley’s car and connected a crash data retrieval (CDR) device to the ACMs, such actions indeed constituted a search and seizure. Moreover, it was an unreasonable search, the court concluded.

“A personal motor vehicle is plainly among the ‘effects’ with which the Fourth Amendment — as it historically was understood — is concerned… and a physical intrusion into a personal motor vehicle for the purpose of obtaining information for a law enforcement investigation generally is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment under the traditional common law trespass standard,” the ruling stated. “The retrieval of data without a warrant at the scene of the collision was a search and seizure that implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy.”

The court also rejected a judgment issued by the lower courts that the data could still be admitted via an exception to the warrant requirement because it would have been inevitably discovered anyway. Justice Blackwell opined that there was no indication that there is “no evidence that any of the investigating officers applied for a warrant, were preparing an application for a warrant, or even were contemplating a warrant before Investigator Hatcher retrieved the data. Nor is there evidence that the Henry County Police Department has a policy, standard operating procedure, or consistent practice that leads officers to always or even routinely obtain search warrants for ACM data in the investigation of fatality crashes.”