For Immediate Release - October 30, 2007

Appeals Court Rules On Black Box Issue

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled, on October 4, 2007, that prosecutors may use data retrieved from electronic data recorders ("EDRs"), or so-called "black boxes," when prosecuting motor vehicle offenses. An EDR is a component of a car's airbag computer.

The decision, the first of its kind in Massachusetts and one of the first in the United States, was rendered in Commonwealth v. Michelle Zimmerman. A Peabody jury convicted Zimmerman of negligent motor vehicle homicide stemming from a January, 2003 crash on Argilla Road in Ipswich which killed her passenger, Kenneth Carlson, 38.

The evidence at trial revealed that Zimmerman was traveling at such an unsafe speed just after a snow storm that she caused her GMC Yukon to slide off the icy, winding road and into a tree. Zimmerman contended to the Ipswich police that she was traveling well below the forty miles per hour speed limit when she lost control. EDR data, though, confirmed reconstruction estimates that she was driving at a much greater speed, one well above her claim and dangerous for the conditions.

In its decision upholding Zimmerman's conviction, the Appeals Court affirmed Judge Santo Ruma's findings after separate motion hearings that Sgt. Stephen J. Walsh of the Massachusetts State Police Collision and Reconstruction Section (C.A.R.S.) established probable cause in a search warrant to upload the data from the Yukon's EDR and that the EDR contained reliable data that the jurors could consider in their deliberations.

Ipswich Police Detective Peter Dziadose investigated the case, while Sgt. Walsh performed the reconstruction. At one of the pretrial hearings and at trial, the Commonwealth called as a witness William "Rusty" Haight, a national expert in EDR technology and in the dynamics of motor vehicle crashes.

Essex Assistant District Attorney William J. Melkonian tried the case and Essex Assistant District Attorney Catherine Semel argued the appeal.