Law enforcement can often conduct searches without a search warrant because there are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement, like holes in swiss cheese. Some of the exceptions to the search warrant requirement include situations where a person consents to a search, or the automobile exception where a motor vehicle is likely of being moved, or exigent circumstances where evidence might be lost. The Court of Appeals, Western District of Missouri, recently issued an opinion that prevented a prosecutor from using information against the driver of a semi-truck charged with involuntary manslaughter.
A semi-truck driver was charged with the crime of involuntarily manslaughter. The Court of Appeals ruled that the data obtained from the truck’s electronic control module (ECM) was obtained without a search warrant and no Fourth Amendment exception applied. The ECM records the operation of the truck and can provide insight into how a truck was operating, i.e. how a truck may have been operated immediately prior to an incident. The Missouri State Highway Patrol downloaded data from the semi-truck’s ECM as part of the criminal investigation. The Highway Patrol officers never obtained a search warrant before downloading the ECM data. The officers claimed the driver gave consent to obtain the data. The driver disputed he gave consent. Consent is not always required from a driver for law enforcement to investigate and search a motor vehicle. But in this case, the Court of Appeals ruled that none of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant applied.
The Court reasoned that ECM data is not the same as an item that is illegal. “The ECM data was not collected because the Highway Patrol believed a crime was committed, but instead to determine whether a crime was committed.” Id. Likewise, law enforcement did not explain what the emergency was that required a search of the ECM without a search warrant. Id.