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The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct
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Georgia Supreme Court: Warrantless Search of Vehicle’s Airbag Control Module is Unconstitutional

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Georgia held that a warrantless search of a vehicle’s airbag control module (“ACM”) is unconstitutional.

In December 2015, Victor Mobley was driving his 2014 Dodge Charger when he collided with a 1999 Corvette. Mobley survived the crash, but the two people in the Corvette did not. Based upon their preliminary investigation, police officers thought it likely that the Corvette caused the collision by driving into the path of the Charger. However, Investigator Jason Hatcher used a crash data retrieval device (“CDRD”) to plug into the port of the airbag control module (“ACM”) of each vehicle and downloaded the data. Data from the Charger indicated that Mobley was driving almost 100 mph moments before colliding with the Corvette. The two cars were subsequently towed to the impound lot.

The following day, Investigator Bryan Thornton applied for a warrant to remove the ACMs from both vehicles. When Thornton applied for the warrant, he was aware that data from the Charger’s ACM revealed Mobley had been traveling at an excessive rate of speed. Mobley was indicted on, inter alia, two counts of vehicular homicide in the first degree based on the data from the ACM. Mobley filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the ACM.

The trial court denied the motion, and after Mobley was convicted at a bench trial, he appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split decision. Judge Mercier determined the evidence was admissible because Mobley had no expectation of privacy in the data, so there was no search. Judges Dillard and Doyle concluded the ACM’s data were admissible under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. The Georgia Supreme Court granted Mobley’s petition for a writ of certiorari to address each of the positions of the judges from the Court of Appeals.

The Court observed that for much of American history the Fourth Amendment was concerned only with government trespasses upon the rights of individuals under common law to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). To determine if a government act constituted a search, American courts asked whether the act was to obtain information by “physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.” Id.

However, in modern times, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that government intrusion into an area where there is an expectation of privacy qualifies as a search, regardless of whether there was a physical trespass upon private rights under the common law. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). But the Katz test for reasonable expectation of privacy was added to, not substituted for, the common law trespassory test. Jones. Since Mobley’s vehicle was one of the “effects” under the purview of the Fourth Amendment, United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977), Investigator Hatcher’s reaching within the Charger to connect the CDRD was a trespass and constituted a search. Jones. It was an unreasonable search because it was done without a warrant, and no exception to the warrant requirement applied. State v. Slaughter, 315 S.E.2d 865 (Ga. 1984).

Whenever evidence is seized pursuant to an unreasonable search, the remedy is to exclude the evidence as a deterrent to keep officers from violating the protections of the Fourth Amendment. Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914). But if it can be shown that unlawfully obtained evidence would have inevitably been lawfully obtained, then the exclusionary rule does not apply, and the evidence may be admitted. This is known as the inevitable discovery doctrine. For the inevitable discovery doctrine to apply, “there must be a reasonable probability that the evidence in question would have been discovered by lawful means, and the prosecution must demonstrate that the lawful means which made discovery inevitable were possessed by the police and were being actively pursued prior to the occurrence of the illegal conduct.” Taylor v. State, 553 S.E.2d 598 (Ga. 2001).

While the police in the instant case possessed a lawful means to discover the evidence (a search warrant is a lawful means to discover evidence, Teal v. State, 647 S.E.2d 15 (Ga. 2007)), the record showed that officers were not “actively pursu[ing]” a warrant at the time Hatcher retrieved the data without a warrant.

The fact that Thornton obtained a warrant the following day did not bring this case within the inevitable discovery exception. Because a valid search warrant can almost always be obtained after an unlawful search has occurred, allowing cops to use a warrant from after-the-fact to justify the earlier search would threaten the warrant requirement. United States v. Satterfield, 743 F.2d 827 (11th Cir. 1984). The Court concluded the usual rule of exclusion held.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. See: Mobley v. State, 2019 Ga. LEXIS 694 (2019).

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Related legal case

Mobley v. State

 

 

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