Police lighting up a car does not constitute detention

People v. Tacardon (Cal., Dec. 29, 2022, No. S264219) 2022 WL 17984057, at *1

Summary’: A sheriff’s deputy patrolling after dark saw three people sitting in a legally parked car in a residential neighborhood, smoking something. He pulled up behind the car, illuminated it with a spotlight, and approached on foot. The California Supreme Court granted review to examine the significance of the deputy’s use of a spotlight in this circumstance. The Court concluded  that shining a spotlight for illumination does not ipso facto constitute a detention under the Fourth Amendment. Consideration must be  of the totality of the circumstances, including the use of a spotlight.

Is illumination with a spotlight by a police car a detention?

After the deputy saw a partially burned, hand-rolled cigarette in the center console, he asked Tacardon about that item and the leafy substance in the bags. Asked whether he was on probation or parole, Tacardon said he was on probation. The deputy confirmed that Tacardon was on probation with a search condition. After searching the BMW, he. seized the three plastic bags in the backseat and a vial containing 76 pills. A search incident to arrest revealed that Tacardon carried $1,904 in cash. Laboratory analysis confirmed that the bags contained 696 grams of marijuana, and the pills were hydrocodone. The amount of drugs, their presence in a car, and the accompanying cash were factors consistent with possession for sale.

Tacardon was charged with possession for sale of hydrocodone and marijuana. (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 11351, 11359, subd. (b).) At the preliminary hearing, the magistrate denied Tacardon’s motion to suppress the evidence (Pen. Code, § 1538.5) and held him to answer.

Based on the preliminary hearing record, the superior court granted the motion and dismissed the charges.

The Court of Appeal reversed. It agreed with the superior court that Grubb’s position behind Tacardon’s car, spotlight illumination, and approach on foot did not “manifest a sufficient show of police authority to constitute a detention.” (People v. Tacardon (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 89, 99, 266 Cal.Rptr.3d 193 (Tacardon).)

The Court of Appeal expressly disagreed with People v. Kidd (2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 12,(Kidd), which found an unlawful detention on similar facts. Although the officer’s approach was, according to record, not made in a particularly aggressive or intimidating manner, a reasonable person in Kidd’s circumstances would not have felt free to leave.” (Kidd, at pp. 21–22, 248 Cal.Rptr.3d 234.)

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve this conflict in the Courts of Appeal.

Consensual Encounter v Detention  

The deputy did  not stop the car. It was already parked on the street when he saw it. Officers can approach people on the street and engage them in consensual conversation. (People v. Brown (2015) 61 Cal.4th 968, 974  (Brown).) Merely walking up to someone in a parked car is not a detention. The issue presented is whether there are additional circumstances, the totality of which transformed the encounter into a detention.

“An officer may approach a person in a public place and ask if the person is willing to answer questions. If the person voluntarily answers, those responses, and the officer’s observations, are admissible in a criminal prosecution. Such consensual encounters present no constitutional concerns and do not require justification. However, ‘when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen,’ the officer effects a seizure of that person, which must be justified under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In situations involving a show of authority, a person is seized ‘if “in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave,” ’ or ‘ “otherwise terminate the encounter” ’ and if the person actually submits to the show of authority.” (Brown, supra, 61 Cal.4th at p. 974.)

The Court considers  the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a detention occurred.

The deputy had no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before he smelled marijuana smoke and saw what appeared to be bags of marijuana in the backseat. So if Tacardon was detained before that point, the action was unjustified and evidence subsequently discovered during the deputy’s search was subject to suppression. (Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 12.)

A reasonable person would distinguish between a spotlight and red and blue emergency lights in considering whether the person was free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter.

A court must consider the use of a spotlight together with all of the other circumstances. It is certainly possible that the facts of a particular case may show a spotlight was used in an authoritative manner. These may include flashing lights at the driver to pull the car over or attempting to blind the driver, which would be relevant considerations under the totality of the circumstances. But use of a spotlight, standing alone, does not necessarily affect a detention.

Considering the circumstances here, Tacardon was not detained when a deputy parked behind the BMW, shined a spotlight on it, and began to approach on foot. He, parked 15 to 20 feet behind Tacardon’s car, and employed the spotlight. After taking about 20 seconds to inform the dispatcher, he began walking towards the car. The deputy’s conduct up to this point conveyed none of the coercive hallmarks of a detention. He did not stop Tacardon’s vehicle or block him from driving away. He did not activate a siren or emergency lights or give directions by loudspeaker. He did not approach rapidly or aggressively on foot or draw a weapon. He gave no commands and made no demands;

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.  Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.

Contact Information