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Calif. Court: 4th Amendment Protects Your Car's Computer

By Orin Kerr

A California appellate court has handed down a fascinating opinion today in State v. Xinos on whether and how the Fourth Amendment regulates government access to data stored in a car’s internal computer that controls the airbags and seatbelts.

After a fatal car accident, the police downloaded the data from the impounded car and used it to help reconstruct the accident and convict the driver of vehicular manslaughter. The information from the computer “showed information captured during the five seconds before defendant’s vehicle experienced a change in velocity.

It disclosed the vehicle’s speed during the five seconds before the incident” and showed that the brakes had been activated at that time. Held: The data was protected by the Fourth Amendment, the retrieval of the data was unconstitutional, and the conviction had to be overturned. From the opinion:

We do not accept the Attorney General’s argument that defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data contained in his vehicle’s SDM. The precision data recorded by the SDM was generated by his own vehicle for its systems operations. While a person’s driving on public roads is observable, that highly precise, digital data is not being exposed to public view or being conveyed to anyone else. . . . We conclude that a motorist’s subjective and reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to her or his own vehicle encompasses the digital data held in the vehicle’s SDM.

The Court also concludes that the computer data is in the car, not outside the car, so the legal standard that governs access to the data probable cause but not a warrant.

Thanks to Fourth for the link.


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