Georgia Appellate Court, Fourth Division holds that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data contained in your Airbag Control Module

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division issued a decision that’s difficult to reconcile with Carpenter.

This case stems from a vehicular manslaughter prosecution where the defendant hit a car where two people in the other car died in the collision. Law enforcement seized an airbag control module (ACM) from the defendant’s vehicle.

The ACM revealed data showing that the defendant was traveling 97 mph just seconds before his airbag deployed. His trial counsel made a motion to suppress the evidence arguing that a warrant was required in order to obtain the data. The trial court ruled that, since a warrant was obtained the day after the police got the data, the court need not reach the issue of whether a warrant was required due to the inevitable discovery doctrine.

The defendant was convicted and he appealed.

The appellate court ruled that a search warrant is not required for law enforcement to retrieve the ACM. They did note that the defendant argued that he had an expectation of privacy in the data and analogized it to a cell phone’s data, citing Riley v. California, (134 S. Ct. 2473, 189 L.E.2d 430) (2014)).

The Georgia Appellate Court rejected this position, relying on cases from other jurisdictions that pre-date Riley (and obviously Carpenter). They did so based on the idea that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data from his vehicle’s ACM because a member of the public can see the vehicle in action on the roads. They ruled that “(t)here is no reasonable expectation of privacy in such information because an individual knowingly exposes such information to the public.”

They also held that, based on the qualitative difference of the data when comparing a ACM to a cell phone (photographs, financial information, etc.) that there is no expectation of privacy in the ACM data.

Carpenter v. United States is mentioned nowhere here in the body of the majority opinion nor in either concurrence. It is mentioned in footnotes of a concurrence. What’s ironic to me is that this special concurrence mentions key language in Carpenter that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the record of his (or her) physical movements while approving of a warrantless search of an ACM that has data revealing the record of the Defendant’s physical movements.

It seems to me that the explicit language of Carpenter protects the data of an ACM. If one follows Justice Gorsuch’s entreaties to consider property law, one would think that this defendant should prevail.

What’s also odd is the stress by this Court that they prefer that a warrant be obtained. But why if the defendant has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data?

The case is Mobley v. State, 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 430, 2018 WL 3135119 (June 27)

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