Mobley v. State

Citation307 Ga. 59,834 S.E.2d 785
Decision Date21 October 2019
Docket NumberS18G1546
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court
Parties MOBLEY v. The STATE.

Brandon A. Bullard, James C. Bonner, Jr., Margaret E. Bullard, for appellant. Darius T. Pattillo, District Attorney, Sharon L. Hopkins, Assistant District Attorney, for appellee. Sean J. Young, Kosha S. Tucker, Nathan F. Wessler, Jennifer S. Granick, Riana Pfefferkorn, amici curiae.

Blackwell, Justice.

After he was tried and convicted of two vehicular homicides, Victor Mobley appealed, claiming that the trial court erred when it denied his pretrial motion to suppress evidence of data that law enforcement officers retrieved without a warrant from an electronic data recording device on his vehicle. In denying the motion to suppress, the trial court had concluded that, whether or not the retrieval of the data was an unlawful search and seizure, the evidence was admissible in any event under the inevitable discovery doctrine. In Mobley v. State, 346 Ga. App. 641, 816 S.E.2d 769 (2018), a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed, one judge reasoning that the retrieval of data was not a search and seizure at all, and two judges agreeing with the trial court that the inevitable discovery doctrine applied. We issued a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals, and for the reasons that follow, we conclude that the trial court erred when it denied the motion to suppress. The judgment of the Court of Appeals, therefore, is reversed.

1. On the afternoon of December 15, 2014, Mobley was driving a 2014 Dodge Charger on Flippen Road in Henry County. A 1999 Chevrolet Corvette pulled onto Flippen Road from a private driveway, and the Charger collided with it. Mobley survived the crash, but the two occupants of the Corvette did not. At first, the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene of the collision found no indication that Mobley had been driving too fast. Indeed, based on their preliminary assessment of the scene and their initial discussions with witnesses, the officers thought it likely that the driver of the Corvette had caused the collision simply by driving into the path of the Charger.

But before the vehicles were removed from the scene of the collision, Sergeant David Gagnon—a supervisor in the Traffic Division of the Henry County Police Department—directed officers to retrieve any available data from the airbag control modules (ACM) on the Charger and Corvette.1 Investigator Jason Hatcher entered the passenger compartments of both vehicles, attached a crash data retrieval (CDR) device to data ports in the cars, and used the CDR to download data from the ACMs. The data retrieved from the Charger indicated that, moments before the collision, Mobley was driving nearly 100 miles per hour. The officers subsequently cleared the scene and had the Charger and Corvette both towed to an impound lot for further investigation.

The next day, Investigator Bryan Thornton joined the team of officers investigating the collision.2 He discussed the case with the officers who had responded to the crash, visited and personally inspected the scene of the collision, and then applied for a warrant to search the Charger and Corvette and to physically remove and seize the ACMs from both vehicles. When Investigator Thornton made his application for a warrant, he was aware that Investigator Hatcher already had retrieved the data from the ACMs and that the data indicated that the Charger had been traveling at an excessive rate of speed.3 His application, however, did not rely on the data to establish probable cause for the seizure of the ACMs. A magistrate issued the warrant, officers executed the warrant at the impound lot, and the ACMs were removed from both vehicles. It appears, however, that no additional data was retrieved from the ACMs subsequent to the execution of the warrant.4

In June 2015, a Henry County grand jury indicted Mobley, charging him with two counts of vehicular homicide in the first degree, reckless driving, and speeding. Mobley later filed a motion pursuant to OCGA § 17-5-30 to suppress the evidence of the data retrieved without a warrant from the ACM in his Charger, alleging that the retrieval of data was an unreasonable search and seizure forbidden by the Fourth Amendment.5 The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion in June 2017, and at that hearing, the prosecuting attorney presented the testimony of Sergeant Gagnon, Investigator Hatcher, and Investigator Thornton.

Following the presentation of evidence, the prosecuting attorney argued that the motion to suppress should be denied for several reasons. More specifically, she argued that:

• Mobley had no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the data, and for that reason, the retrieval of that data was not a search and seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment;
• Even if the retrieval of the data was a search and seizure, a warrant was unnecessary because the search was directed to an automobile;
• Exigent circumstances—namely, the possibility that the data could be lost or corrupted when the vehicles were towed away from the scene—permitted a warrantless search;
• Investigator Hatcher retrieved the data without a warrant in good faith reliance on his understanding that no warrant is required to retrieve data from an ACM at the scene of a serious crash; and
• The subsequent issuance of a warrant to seize the ACMs made the discovery of the data inevitable.

On the day after the hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the motion to suppress. Without deciding whether the retrieval of data at the scene of the collision was a search and seizure that ordinarily would require a warrant, and without determining whether any established exception to the warrant requirement applied, the trial court concluded that the subsequent issuance of a warrant to seize the ACMs rendered the evidence admissible under the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule:

The Court finds that it does not have to reach the decision on the appropriateness of the actions of the officers on the scene because a search warrant was obtained the next day. [Investigator] Thornton testified that he always seeks such a warrant in accidents involving fatalities. A review of the warrant application and supporting affidavit shows that neither the application nor the affidavit relied upon information obtained from the on-the-scene download. The Court finds that the data contained in the ACM would have certainly been available to law enforcement when the ACMs were properly removed from the vehicles pursuant to the search warrant[ ], and thus would have inevitably been discovered by investigators.

Mobley then stipulated to the relevant facts for purposes of a bench trial, and the trial court found him guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to concurrent terms of fifteen years—with seven years to be served in prison, followed by eaight years on probation—on two counts of vehicular homicide in the first degree.6

Mobley appealed, challenging the denial of his motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals issued a split panel decision, rejecting the claim that the trial court erred when it denied the motion and affirming the judgment of conviction. Judge Mercier wrote the lead opinion, although she wrote only for herself. Judge Mercier concluded that the trial court properly denied the motion to suppress because the data retrieved from the ACM in the Charger was not of a sort in which Mobley could have a reasonable expectation of privacy. See Mobley, 346 Ga. App. at 646 (1), 816 S.E.2d 769. Noting that the data simply reflected the operation and movements of the Charger in the moments immediately preceding the collision, Judge Mercier explained that "[a] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another." Id. at 645 (1), 816 S.E.2d 769 (citation and punctuation omitted). Although Judge Mercier conceded that "an outside observer cannot ascertain the information regarding the use and functioning of a vehicle with the same level of precision as that captured by the ACM," she said that most of the information that could be gleaned from the data was, in fact, ascertainable by any observer, albeit with less precision:

For example, a member of the public can observe a vehicle's approximate speed; observe whether a vehicle's brakes are being employed by seeing the vehicle slow down or stop or the brake lights come on, [or] by hearing the sounds of sudden braking; and observe whether the driver is wearing a seatbelt. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in such information because an individual knowingly exposes such information to the public.

Id. at 646 (1), 816 S.E.2d 769.7 Because Mobley had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data, Judge Mercier concluded, its retrieval at the scene of the collision did not amount to a search and seizure and did not, therefore, implicate the Fourth Amendment. See id. at 644 (1), 816 S.E.2d 769.

Then-Chief Judge Dillard and Presiding Judge Doyle wrote separately, both resting their concurrences on the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. Judge Dillard focused on the testimony of the officers at the hearing on the motion to suppress about the usual course of investigation in cases involving a fatality accident. Specifically, Judge Dillard pointed to evidence that the retrieval of data from ACMs is routine in such investigations, as well as the testimony of Investigator Thornton that, if data had not been retrieved from the ACM at the scene, he would have sought a warrant and obtained the same data later. See id. at 648-649, 816 S.E.2d 769 (Dillard, C.J., concurring specially).8 Judge Doyle focused more on the warrant that was issued on the day following the collision, reasoning that it was obtained in the ordinary course of investigation, it did not rest on any information...

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