A 32-year-old man was peddling his bicycle along Galveston Street on the night of April 12, 2019, and as he approached Chippewa Drive, he was struck by the side of a moving car.
Witnesses saw the driver stop for a few moments before fleeing. The cyclist was left to lie out in the street – blood dripping from his face, his leg severely fractured. He was rushed to the hospital and treated for his injuries.
The Chandler Police Department canvassed the area for any residents with security cameras hoping one camera may have captured the collision on tape. But nothing turned up showing the suspect’s license plate number.
A month passed before a detective submitted a search warrant for video footage of a self-driving car, he suspected, recorded the hit-and-run suspect. The car belonged to Waymo, the Google-affiliated company often circulating autonomous cars around Chandler over the last few years.
The high-tech vehicles come equipped with several cameras and sensors continuously logging what it perceives on the streets.
These cars have been hailed by their creators as the solution to make the country’s roads safer – eliminating the human error many believe causes the majority of accidents.
The mobility of this new technology may additionally become a valuable asset for law enforcement when it comes to conducting criminal investigations.
In Chandler’s hit-and-run case, a Maricopa County judge signed off on a search warrant to review Waymo’s footage.
One of the company’s cars was driving east on Ray Road when it passed the vehicle suspected of hitting the cyclist.
But investigators determined Waymo’s footage was not clear enough to reveal any of the hit-run car’s identifying markers, police reports show.
As of last month, the suspect had yet to be identified.
Chandler Police said it doesn’t regularly attempt to look into Waymo’s cameras to solve crimes and the hit-and-run case was a rare incident.
If the department becomes aware a Waymo car has evidence related to an investigation, the agency said it may try to obtain it the same as when investigators review surveillance cameras stationed outside homes or businesses.
Criminology experts foresee the increasing presence of self-driving cars in Arizona as a unique opportunity for criminal investigations.
Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had not heard of police subpoenaing car companies for access to autonomous cars.
But he thinks it falls in line with cops inspecting other types of technology like doorbell cameras, Apple watches or social media profiles.
“That’s just the latest trend in what is a very common practice for law enforcement to try to get evidence from all different types of electronic places,” Wandt said.
Wandt describes himself as both a privacy advocate and supporter of self-driving cars. He thinks as long as police have probable cause, then a company’s cameras should be subject to disclosure.
But it’s up to Waymo and Uber to maintain control over access to its information, Wandt added, and not allow the government to turn the company’s cars into an unregulated, widespread surveillance system.
“I could see a dystopian future where every car on the road – police could just use as a mobile video camera without any legal process going on,” Wandt said. “That would be horrible.”
Waymo brought its fleet of self-driving cars to Chandler a couple years ago and plans to build another facility soon in Mesa.
Waymo recently announced it’s provided more than 100,000 rides since launching in 2017.
Other police departments in the Valley have not asked Waymo for evidence related to an investigation but would do so if the opportunity arose.
“We utilize any evidence we can obtain and can aid in the resolution of an incident or a situation to help reduce harm in the City of Tempe,” said Det. Greg Bacon of the Tempe Police Department.
Though his agency has not obtained search warrants to inspect Waymo’s cameras, Bacon said they would follow the same process for obtaining any other type of digital evidence.
Bacon said Tempe detectives can contact Waymo to find out whether one of its cars may have recorded footage related to a crime or collision.
Mesa Police said the cameras on a Waymo car helped solve an aggravated assault committed last year against one of the company’s drivers.
According to police reports, a Waymo car was traveling behind a motorcycle on Baseline Road when the Waymo employee honked the autonomous car’s horn.
The motorcycle slowed down, forcing the Waymo car to stop. The rider got off his bike and yelled at the Waymo car before brandishing a gun. The Waymo car drove around the motorcycle and left the scene.
Mesa Police obtained surveillance footage from the Waymo car and detected the motorcyclist’s license plate number. The bike was registered to 30-year-old Bradley Campbell.
Investigators informed Campbell they had camera footage of him confronting the Waymo vehicle. He admitted he may have acted recklessly, police reports show, and was charged with disorderly conduct.
Campbell pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Aside from this incident, Mesa Police said it has not had to subpoena Waymo camera footage. But if the agency ever needed to do so, it would require a certain level of reasonable suspicion for a judge to sign off on such a request.
Since these autonomous cars could be driving anywhere at any time, investigators would need to find out whether one of them actually may have been at the scene of an incident before filing a search warrant.
A judge isn’t likely to authorize a vague, open-ended or unspecific warrant.
Joseph Schafer, a criminology professor at Saint Louis University, thinks its fair game for law enforcement to go on fishing expeditions to find out whether an autonomous car recorded relevant evidence.
It would essentially be the same as cops calling any other business and asking if their security cameras caught a fleeing suspect, he said.
Responding to a search warrant is a sound process and can appease the company’s customers, he added, because it signals the company exercises some restraint with access to its information.
“The search warrant provides some coverage to the corporation – having a warrant gives them cover with the public and with their shareholders,” Schafer said.
Not all tech companies have been compliant with the government’s demand for access.
Apple famously defied a court order obtained by the FBI to unlock a phone belonging to one of the shooters of the 2015 San Bernardino massacre.
Privacy advocates like the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center believe lawmakers should protect consumers by regulating the autonomous-car industry.
“Autonomous vehicles create many new surveillance risks not only for the driver and the passengers but also the local community,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC.
“The exterior facing cameras gather vast troves of information,” he added. “Clear laws should be established to limit the collection and use of personal data.”
Congress has yet to pass any bills outlining a federal framework for how these cars should be deployed or regulated.
Researchers like Joseph Schafer still have many unanswered questions when it comes to self-driving vehicles. It’s not clear to him how DUI laws will apply to autonomous cars or whether children can ride in them unsupervised.
“There’s very little clarity on where things are going with autonomous vehicles,” he added.