A few years ago, I was talking to my insurance agent about ways to save on my car insurance (and no, I didn’t call GEICO, and no, it took longer than fifteen minutes). While exploring my options, she said that there was a new product that they were testing in certain areas, but it wasn’t available in the DC metro area at the time. It was a “black box” type of computer that would track all manner of information about your driving habits – where you go, how fast you drive, how many miles you travel and how “safe” you are. Based upon the information sent to the insurance company, the box would cause your insurance to be adjusted (either higher or lower). She generously offered that she could make this wonderful new gizmo available to me when and if it came to the DMV.
I didn’t think that was a solution right for me and I graciously declined.
You see, I’m a reckless driver. I drive way too fast (usually around 90-100 miles per hour). I also don’t pay attention to what I’m doing – I text, call, read books, drink coffee, build dioramas – while I’m driving. Plus, I drive A LOT. On any given day I put about 150 miles on my car.
While that last statement alone is the only true one, the distances I drive (and sometimes the neighborhoods I visit for client meetings) would certainly cause my car insurance to go sky-high. Plus, I’m not a big fan of any company, person or government (hear that, NSA? Who am I kidding; you knew it before I reduced it to paper) collecting too much information on what I do, where I do it and how often I can squeeze it in. For me, putting the black box on my car isn’t worth the potential savings I could have experienced as a result of its installation.
However, it seems as though the box has another useful purpose. It appears that, in San Antonio, a young man was driving and he caused a collision that resulted in the deaths of two people. Of course, the driver of the car stated that he was observing the rules of the road at the time of the collision, and that the accident was just that – an unfortunate event that ended in tragedy, but no legal liability or blame could or should be assigned.
Enter the black box.
To confirm the driver’s accounting of events, the police seized the black box attached to the car. On it, they found that the car was traveling at a high rate of speed immediately prior to the collision. When faced with these facts, the driver broke down and informed authorities that he was involved in a high speed drag race immediately prior to the incident. As a result, the driver is now facing manslaughter charges (take note Florida prosecutors) instead of walking away from the situation scott-free.
This, generally, is a very good thing.
However, we have to ensure that, as with speed cameras, the correct person or party is charged with the crime the black box records. Sure, the car can reveal a great many things – speed, direction, place, habits, activities and so on – it can’t identify two very important things: the identity of the vehicle’s driver and the intent the driver had at the time of the accident.
Thankfully, eyewitness testimony can tell us who the driver was. Sometimes, if the police are really lucky, a confession can do the trick. But what about all of those times when neither are forthcoming? A black box does us some good, but not enough to get us through to a solution – or criminal charges – whichever they may be.
Another problem is with intent. As I’ve said before in this column, most criminal offenses have two requirements – an actus reus and a mens rea. An actus reus is the actual physical act required to carry out the offense, i.e., maim, stab, kill, beat. The mens rea is the mental state the alleged perpetrator possessed at the time of the incident – did they knowingly, purposefully, intentionally, willingly carry out the act.
Mens rea is difficult to prove. There are some ways in which investigators can discover a person’s mental state at the time a crime was committed, but usually it’s found out through testimony, a confession or an examination of the persons actions leading up to the crime. A good example is the Zimmerman case – it was very difficult to establish what the defendant’s state of mind was at the time of the shooting.
And with that, I hope I didn’t open up a can of worms – I can only imagine some people, governments, etc. would love to install a black box on us!
Christopher Markham writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.