Missouri Court of Appeals declares warrantless ECM download a no-no

April 23, 2018

Wendy Parker


A ruling on evidence suppression from Missouri Court of Appeals regarding a 2015 involuntary manslaughter charge has been reached.  Defendant Anthony West, a semi-truck driver, was charged with failure to yield for stopped traffic, resulting in the death of Mary Haile. In accident-scene statements, West declared brake failure  the cause.

The state charged West with one count of involuntary manslaughter in the first degree.

West’s attorneys filed a motion to suppress evidence, which included information obtained through post-accident downloads of electronic control module data. The defendant asserted law enforcement obtained the information without a warrant, which violated of his Fourth Amendment rights. The state cited several reasons for making it part of evidence, including West’s alleged consent to a search and Missouri’s automobile exception.

Upon appeal, the higher court determined West did in fact have a “subjective expectation of privacy to afford him standing to assert violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.” The suppression of evidence was granted.

They went on to clarify their interpretation of the state automobile exception.

Missouri allows police to search a vehicle and seize contraband found, “if there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband and exigent circumstances necessitate the search.” The 24-page ruling opines that Missouri’s automobile exception does not apply here because the word “contraband” is specifically stated in the state’s statute.

The court says the state’s reference to the automobile exception in the record “was brief and fleeting, beyond its bare mention, (and) was not developed.” Interpretation of the law language asserts there was no reasonable suspicion of “contraband,” and so, therefore, no reason to physically enter the truck to download the ECM information.

With this rule of law clarified, the state of Missouri would have indeed needed to obtain a warrant for admissible collection of the ECM information. Probable cause requires a reasonable belief that it is more probable than not that the vehicle contains illegal items. The appellate court feels there was no such indication in this case.

West’s alleged verbal consent to search was also deemed insufficient. Questions as to whether or not he specifically agreed to allow the download to remain. Mr. West maintains he had no knowledge of the ECM, nor could access the information kept within it himself.

Citing the case United States v. Jones, the court reminds the state of Missouri, “Fourth Amendment jurisprudence was tied to common-law trespass, at least until the latter half of the 20th century so that the Fourth Amendment was understood to embody a particular concern for government trespass upon the areas (persons, houses, papers, and effects) it enumerates.” 565 U.S. at 405, 406. Key to the trespassory test is whether the government obtains information by physically intruding on a constitutionally protected area.”

West, as operator and possessor of a vehicle, had a lawful reasonable expectation of privacy in it. Law enforcement physically entered and occupied the semi-truck’s passenger compartment. There is no dispute they did so to obtain West’s data from the ECM. Therefore, the physical intrusion into the semi-truck constituted an actionable trespass.

The court has ruled to suppress the evidence.