People are familiar with the term “black box” in connection with airplanes. But many cars also have event data recorders (EDRs), or “black boxes.” EDRs can record a car’s speed, the crash severity (or the Delta V), engine throttle, seatbelt status, and whether or not brakes were applied.
Why then are EDRs important to drivers? The information contained in the EDR can be used to bring charges and prosecute a criminal case, such as for Driving to Endanger. In this way, the State uses your own car’s computer to produce evidence against you. However, the EDR lacks the ability to explain what really happened in real life, or the circumstances leading up to the accident.
Therefore, it is extremely important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney who can put the EDR information into the proper context.
Facts of the case
My Client was visiting Maine and driving on some of Maine’s winding roads. Client’s car slid off the road and hit a guard rail. No other cars were involved. Police arrived at the scene of the accident. Police charged my client with Aggravated Driving to Endanger (DTE) and Reckless Conduct. My client’s car was impounded, where the “black box” EDR computer was removed.
The police sent the “black box” to the Maine State forensic crime lab, and then released the vehicle to my client. Unfortunately, having the black box computer installed in the car is necessary for the car to function. As a result, my client’s vehicle was given back to him as inoperable.
1.Definition. A person commits a Class E crime if, with criminal negligence as defined in Title 17-A, that person drives a motor vehicles in any place in a manner that endangers the property of another or a person, including the operator or passenger in the motor vehicle being driven.
1-A. Aggravated punishment category. Notwithstanding subsection 1, a person commits a Class C crime if, with criminal negligence as defined in Title 17-A, Section 35, that person drives a motor vehicle in any place in a manner that endangers the property of another person, including the operator or passenger in the motor vehicle being driven, and causes serious bodily injury, as defined in Title 17-A, section 2, subsection 23, to another person.
In other words, if convicted of a Class C felony Driving to Endanger charge, the serious minimum penalties include:
- Mandatory minimum 180 days loss of driving privileges
- Mandatory minimum fine of $575.00
- Status as a felon
The maximum penalties for a Class C felony crime include up to $5,000.00 in fines and up to five (5) years jail time.
- A person is guilty of reckless conduct if he recklessly creates a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person.
- Reckless conduct is a Class D crime.
If convicted of a Class D misdemeanor, the maximum penalties include up to $2,000.00 in fines and up to 364 days jail time.
Potential Challenges for my Client
The biggest challenge in my client’s case would likely be in connection with the black box. Generally, an EDR is a complex system that collects data from sensors that monitor the functioning of certain systems, such as the brakes.
The EDR maintains two types of memory: short term and long term. As you drive your car normally, the EDR collects operation data in short term memory, so that the most recent few seconds are always available. Upon some serious event, such as a crash, the EDR moves the pre-crash data up to several seconds post-crash into its long term memory. Investigators can extract the data from long term memory, and use it to develop a picture of what the car did immediately before and after an incident. While EDRs are generally considered reliable, like any machine, they have limitations. And the data can be lost if the EDR itself is damaged during a crash.
Weaknesses in the State’s Case
In my client’s case, it was my impression that the police went way overboard in the felony level severity of the charge. It would be up to the District Attorney to convince a grand jury that the police report supports the elements of an Aggravated DTE charge. When you are charged with a felony, you must first be indicted by a grand jury. The State generally has six (6) months, or three grand jury cycles, to procure an indictment. My client was waiting for an indictment, but the State was taking its time is securing one. As a result of my investigation into this delay, I learned that the DA was waiting to receive the results from the State Crime Lab in Augusta concerning the data on my client’s EDR
This wan an important discovery. The Police did not create an accident reconstruction report at the scene of the accident and I determined that the State was going supplement the missing report with data from the EDR. Thusly, I figured that without that data, the State could not get the required indictment to proceed against my client. Without an indictment the case would be dismissed.
What happened at Court
With no indictment being prepared, I filed a Motion for return of my client’s property, demanding that the State return his black box computer to him. A court date was set to argue this Motion. At the hearing the State argued that they needed the data from the EDR to secure an indictment and that the crime lab was too backed up with work to process the information in a timely manner. (Just as I figured) I argued that the State had no reasonable excuse in the delay because they had the EDR in their possession since the day of the accident. The Judge ultimately agreed with my argument but gave the State a small opportunity with a deadline of thirty (30) days to return my client’s black box.
Within these 30 days, I had fully expected that the State would produce the evidence from the black box to secure an indictment. However, the State failed to comply with the 30 days they had to retrieve the information off of the EDR. A Court Order issued for the State to return my client’s black box to him. Upon Order, the black box was returned to my client without the State ever having examined its contents. A dismissal for failure to indict soon followed.
Even though the State might have viewed this case as a lost opportunity, it was a distinct success for my client, as the felony charges were dropped completely saving my client’s career and reputation.