Vehicle speed information from ‘black box’ ruled admissible

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that information retrieved from a vehicle’s “event data recorder” — akin to an airplane’s “black box” — is admissible to establish a vehicle’s speed prior to a crash.

In a memorandum decision in Commonwealth vs. Safka, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that so-called EDR technology is not novel science and is therefore admissible under the test that the 1923 U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit case Frye v. United States established.

The court was split, however, regarding whether the trial judge had the authority to unilaterally reopen the evidentiary record after closing arguments so the parties could present more evidence regarding the reliability and accuracy of EDR data.

In his 11-page majority memorandum, Judge Jack A. Panella said Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning acted in accordance with his discretion under Rules 104 and 611 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence, which allow trial courts to preliminarily admit evidence subject to a later determination regarding accuracy and reliability.

Judge Panella also said the prosecution presented evidence establishing “that the technology has existed for almost 40 years, has been adopted by the major automobile manufacturers and has been recognized as an acceptable tool used by accident reconstruction experts to determine a vehicle’s speed prior to an impact.”

Judge Judith Ference Olson joined Judge Panella in the majority.

In a separate six-page concurring and dissenting memorandum, Judge David N. Wecht concurred with the majority regarding the admissibility of EDR data but adamantly disagreed with its finding that Judge Manning had the authority to reopen the evidentiary record without a specific request from either of the parties.

In Safka, according to Judge Panella, defendant Ryan Safka was charged with two counts of homicide by vehicle, three counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of recklessly endangering another person and several other vehicle violations. He waived his right to a jury trial and elected to proceed with a bench trial.

According to Judge Panella, the defense did not file a pretrial motion seeking to preclude the EDR data from evidence and instead filed a motion to exclude it after the trial began.

Judge Manning allowed the EDR evidence to be admitted but made no determination at the time regarding how much weight he would ultimately give it, according to Judge Panella.

Judge Wecht disagreed that Judge Manning should have been permitted to reopen the evidentiary record after closing arguments, saying the prosecution had already passed up multiple opportunities to argue its case regarding the reliability and accuracy of the EDR evidence.

“There is no support in our case law, statutes or rules of court to support the trial court’s actions under these circumstances,” said Judge Wecht, adding that Judge Manning impermissibly “gave the commonwealth a second chance to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Counsel for Mr. Safka, Robert E. Stewart of Stewart Melograne & Zinski in Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment at press time.

“As technology has advanced, so too have the methods by which investigators can determine responsibility and culpability with respect to criminal charges,” said a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. “We believe that our use and explanation of this technology was appropriate during the trial, and we are pleased that this decision affirms that position.”

Judge Panella noted that appellate courts in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey have permitted EDR data as evidence of a vehicle’s speed prior to a crash.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 1-215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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