The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects us against “unreasonable search and seizure” by law enforcement. Most of the time, this means that police must obtain a warrant before searching us or our property.
There are exceptions allowing police to conduct a search without a warrant, as well as instances in which it isn’t clear that Fourth Amendment protections apply. Unfortunately, when the Constitution’s protections are not entirely clear, it creates a loophole that police can exploit until or unless a court rules otherwise. Nowhere is this issue more important than when it comes to the technology we carry around with us every day.
Imagine how much sensitive and private information you carry around in your cellphone, your laptop, or even the computer built into your car. Modern cars now contain “infotainment” systems that sync with our cellphones, GPS navigation, audio/video collection capabilities and event data recorders that preserve driver/vehicle behavior data in the event of a crash. Should police officers have the right to search the tech in our vehicles without a warrant?
This question is at the heart of a case before the Georgia Supreme Court (referred to as Mobley vs. State), and it could someday find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Mobley was involved in a tragic car crash. And shortly after the crash, police went into his car and downloaded information from the vehicle’s event data recorder, which is similar to the “black box” found on airplanes. They did not have a warrant to conduct the search. When they analyzed the data, police found that Mr. Mobley had been speeding prior to the crash, and they used this information to increase the criminal charge he faced.
Here’s where things get tricky. The State of Georgia argues that no warrant was necessary because previous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have held that people have a lower expectation of privacy in their cars than they do in their homes, and that police are generally allowed to conduct warrantless searches for physical items in cars.
The defendant (and advocates like the ACLU) argue that electronic data is not a physical item and that a search of computerized tech is far more invasive than a search for physical items. They also cite several Supreme Court rulings from recent years protecting people from having their cellphones searched without a warrant, largely because cellphones contain so much personal data.
No matter how the court rules, this case before the Georgia Supreme Court will set an important precedent in law enforcement until or unless the case makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hopefully, any court hearing this case will rule in favor of protecting our Fourth Amendment rights.