In March 2021, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department executed a search warrant to obtain data from the Event Data Recorder, typically referred to as the “black box,” in the vehicle that Tiger Woods crashed. Police said it was an effort to determine the cause of the wreck and whether a crime occurred.
While black boxes have been associated with plane crashes for decades, the data devices are now becoming a go-to for auto accident investigators, especially in cases involving serious injury or death. The devices can be a treasure trove of information – contradicting or corroborating a driver’s account of what happened while he or she was behind the wheel.
Here’s an overview of black boxes, why they are being increasingly used in criminal investigations, how they can be obtained by the police, and how they can help – or hurt you – in a criminal investigation.
What do we know about Tiger Woods crash?
Golf legend Tiger Woods, 45, was driving a Genesis GV80 SUV on a two-lane road near Los Angelas shortly after 7 a.m. on February 23 when he crossed a median and veered onto the wrong side of the road. His vehicle struck a tree and landed on its side in the brush. He had to be physically removed from the car by emergency responders using a pry bar and ax. Woods was seriously injured and had to undergo surgery on his lower right leg and ankle. Woods told deputies he did not recall driving. Tiger Woods’ family released the following statement about his accident and injuries:
What is a vehicle black box?
Most vehicles today are equipped with a so-called “black box,” which is technically known as an Event Data Recorder, or EDR. Black boxes are not necessarily black or even boxes. A black box may be made up of several different components and a number of sensors placed throughout the vehicle. Black boxes are, therefore, essentially computers that gather and store data from a vehicle’s sensors, including GPS, position, speed, and time. Black boxes are usually installed below the center of the dashboard or beneath seats to protect them from damage. When a vehicle is involved in a crash, the black box can give moment-by-moment data, including speed, acceleration, braking, blinker use, etc. This is why black boxes are increasingly being used in investigations.
Black boxes were introduced in cars around 1994 when they were being used by manufacturers to analyze how cars performed in real-life accidents. By 2014, every new vehicle in the United States was mandated to have a black box. As time went on, event data recorders started tracking more and more information. Today, black boxes record for 20 seconds around the crash and keep at least 15 data points while manufacturers can include up to 30 more. The 15 required data points are:
- Forward and lateral crash force.
- Crash event duration.
- Indicated vehicle speed.
- Accelerator position.
- Engine rpm.
- Brake application and antilock brake activation.
- Steering wheel angle.
- Stability control engagement.
- Vehicle roll angle, in case of a rollover.
- Number of times the vehicle has been started.
- Driver and front-passenger safety belt engagement, and pretensioner or force limiter engagement.
- Air bag deployment, speed, and faults for all air bags.
- Front seat positions.
- Occupant size.
- Number of crashes (one or more impacts during the final crash event).
Who owns the data collected by a black box?
The Driver Privacy Act of 2015 says EDR data is the property of the vehicle owner or lessee. However, the data may be accessed by a person other than the owner or lessee under five circumstances:
- pursuant to court or administrative order
- consent of the owner or lessee
- pursuant to an investigation of a motor vehicle accident by the Secretary of the Treasury of the National Transportation Safety Board as long as personally identifiable information is not disclosed
- for the purpose of emergency medical response to a vehicle crash
- for traffic safety research, as long as personally identifiable information is not disclosed.
Do investigators need a warrant to retrieve a black box?
There is almost a century-old precedent in the United States that officers need probable cause to search a vehicle. (Carroll vs. United States, 1925). While not entirely analogous, we know that cell phones are also not subject to a warrantless search. (Riley vs. California, 2014). We don’t have a clear answer from the Supreme Court yet, but the Court has not taken up any case where State prosecutors argued on appeal that black boxes can be obtained without a showing of probable cause. (The Supreme Court’s decision to take a case or not take a case sometimes gives us valuable insight into what the Court’s position might be.) At the state-level, courts vary by jurisdiction. For example, courts in Florida and Georgia have ruled the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s privacy in the vehicle’s black box data while courts in New York and California have disagreed.
Notably, in Tiger Woods’ case, we know a search warrant was obtained to retrieve the black box, despite the fact that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department calling the wreck “purely an accident.” This means an application was made by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department outlining why they believe there was probable cause that a criminal offense took place. Sources have reported the probable cause statement was based on an allegation that Tiger Woods was committing the criminal offense of driving recklessly.
Probable cause requires “specific and articulable facts that an offense occurred.” Yet sources have also reported the search warrant affidavit does not list any specific crime. You can expect an incredible amount of scrutiny to be placed on the affidavit for the search warrant and the judge’s decision once the affidavit is released to see if probable cause was established or whether this was nothing more than a fishing expedition – the latter would mean any evidence collected could be thrown out.
Can you be prosecuted for just an accident?
If this is just an accident as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department initially reported, that is not the basis for a criminal offense. Are there factors that could make it a criminal offense? Most jurisdictions have some form of a reckless driving statute. For example, in Texas, reckless driving is a low-level misdemeanor offense and requires proof that the person was driving “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Whether or not the L.A. County Sheriff had proof under the California equivalent of that law remains to be seen.
How can black boxes help or hurt a criminal case?
When a driver is involved in an accident, investigators will most certainly try and question them about what happened. Were you speeding? Were you drinking? Did you fall asleep at the wheel? Was there a passenger in the car? Were you texting? Talking on the phone?
The black box can corroborate or contradict a driver’s story. If everything checks out and it was truly just an unfortunate, unforeseeable accident, the driver will hopefully not be charged with a crime. However, if there was wrongdoing on the part of the driver and the driver lies about it, the black box will likely uncover the truth – and it can be used against you in court.
Update: What the black box revealed in Tiger Woods’ crash
On April 7, 2021, investigators announced that the black box revealed that Woods was driving 84 and 87 miles per hour in a 45 m.p.h. zone when he crashed his sport-utility vehicle. Authorities said Woods was not cited for driving too fast and no criminal charges will be filed. They added that there were no signs of impairment or intoxication and that Woods was wearing his seatbelt. Investigators said the black box data showed Woods had hit the accelerator throughout the crash, and Woods likely inadvertently hit the accelerator while trying to brake.
Beyond Black Boxes
Don’t forget that modern cars are a treasure trove of information. Computers track GPS locations, navigation history, and some even ping nearby cell towers for phone service. Toll tags can provide speed, location, and heading information. Insurance companies are providing driving behavior data to the insurer by cell service. As law enforcement gets savvier and we collect and store more and more information about ourselves, expect law enforcement to seek warrants to try to get that information.
If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges stemming from a car crash in North Texas, it’s imperative that you speak to a skilled defense attorney as soon as possible. We can help. We have defended dozens of people charged with serious crimes after a car wreck. Call 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with an experienced member of our team.