The Georgia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in the case of a man found guilty of vehicular homicide after colliding with a vehicle in Henry County and killing its two occupants.
Victor Lamont Mobley is appealing his convictions, arguing that data obtained from his car’s “airbag control module” should have been suppressed at trial because officers downloaded it before getting a warrant.
Mobley pleaded guilty in June 2017 to two counts of homicide by vehicle in the first degree, speeding and reckless driving in the deaths of William Carl McMillen, 74, and Charlotte Juanita Folds, 72. The couple was killed as McMillen pulled out of his driveway on Dec. 15, 2014. A speeding Dodge Charger driving southbound on Flippen Road T-boned McMillen in his Chevrolet Corvette. Both McMillen and Folds were Stockbridge residents.
According to the Supreme Court, when Henry County police officers arrived at the accident scene, witnesses told them that Mobley had crashed into the victims’ car as it was making a left-hand turn. None of the witnesses provided officers with information regarding the speeds of either vehicle, but the speed limit at the collision scene was 45 mph. Based on the evidence at the scene, officers believed Mobley probably had been driving between 45 and 50 mph immediately prior to the crash.
However, because the crash ended with two fatalities, officers decided they needed to continue to investigate in order “to find out if there (were) any other extenuating circumstances that caused the collision itself.”
Consequently, one of the officers chose at the scene to download the data from the “airbag control module” (ACM) in both vehicles without first obtaining a search warrant. The officers later testified that they believed they did not need a search warrant prior to downloading the ACM data because they “had the resources available at the time … to go ahead and just gather all the data that (they) could while (they were) on-scene.”
The ACM in Mobley’s vehicle was designed to capture data related to a collision or airbag deployment, including the car’s speed, engine speed, brake status, throttle position, engine revolutions, the driver’s seatbelt status, brake switch status, the time from maximum deceleration to impact, the time from vehicle impact to airbag deployment, and diagnostic information on the vehicle’s systems. Accessing the data requires special equipment, and special training is required to interpret the data retrieved. The data from Mobley’s ACM showed that he actually had been driving at a rate of 97 mph five seconds before airbag deployment.
The cars were eventually towed from the scene and maintained at an impound lot. The next day, officers applied for a warrant to search and seize the ACMs from both vehicles. The purpose of the search warrant was to remove the ACMs from the vehicles and place them into an evidence locker. In applying for the search warrant, the affidavit in support did not inform the magistrate judge that officers had already collected the data from the ACMs. After obtaining the warrant, officers removed the ACMs from both vehicles, placed the devices into evidence storage, and did not access the ACM data again.
Officers later testified that they could have applied for a search warrant prior to downloading the ACM data in this case, and if they had not downloaded the data, they would have done so at the impound lot after getting a search warrant.
Mobley’s attorneys filed a pre-trial motion to exclude the data from evidence as having been the fruit of an unlawful warrantless search under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The amendment states that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation….” Following a hearing, the trial court denied Mobley’s motion to suppress, finding it was unnecessary to decide whether a search warrant was required to access the data from the ACM because police obtained a search warrant the day after the data was accessed, and therefore the data inevitably would have been discovered “when the ACMs were properly removed from the vehicle pursuant to the search warrants.”
Mobley, 47 at the time, was scheduled to stand trial but pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years, with seven to be served in prison.
Mobley appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court’s ruling. The intermediate appellate court concluded that Mobley “did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the data captured by his vehicle’s ACM” because members of the public and others could observe his vehicle’s movement, speed and braking, either directly or through the use of technology such as radar guns or automated cameras. As a result, the Court of Appeals ruled, the retrieval of the data was not a search or seizure protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Mobley now appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has agreed to review the case to answer a number of questions, including whether the search and seizure of the airbag control module violated the Fourth Amendment.