Calif. Supreme Court rules police spotlight on a vehicle does not necessarily constitute detention
The court held that “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”
By Andrew Sheeler
The Sacramento Bee
SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a police spotlight on a vehicle does not necessarily constitute detention under the Fourth Amendment.
The court, in a 5-2 decision, held that “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,” according to the ruling.
Justice Carol Corrigan authored the opinion, with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Leondra Kruger, Martin Jenkins and Patricia Guerrero concurring.
Justice Joshua Groban concurred with the majority in part, and dissented in part. Justice Goodwin Liu wrote in dissent.
The majority, in making the ruling, declared that courts must consider the use of a spotlight as part of the totality of the circumstances to determine whether it constitutes a police stop.
“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 the use of a spotlight, standing alone, does not necessarily effect a detention,” the majority ruled.
The decision comes as a ruling in the case of the People v. Tacardon, in which a San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy in Stockton pulled up behind a car with three people inside, appearing to smoke something, and illuminated the vehicle with a spotlight. The defendant, Leon Tacardon, later was arrested and charged with possession of hydrocodone and marijuana with intent to sell.
In his dissent, Justice Liu wrote that the majority ruling “strains credulity.”
“I imagine this conclusion comes as news to anyone who has ever had their car illuminated by a police spotlight. The court apparently envisions that a reasonable person in Tacardon’s circumstances would think, ‘Oh, the officer who just eyeballed me, made a U-turn, pulled up behind me in his patrol car, pointed a bright spotlight at my car, got out of his car, and is now walking toward me isn’t trying to stop me. He just turned on his spotlight to see what’s going on. Good thing he didn’t turn on his emergency lights . . . looks like I’m free to leave,’” Liu wrote.
The justice added that no reasonable person would feel free to leave under such circumstances.
“A reasonable person would instead submit to the officer’s approach and stay put,” Liu wrote.
The California Supreme Court ruling was met with consternation among some legal experts on Twitter.
Sam Feldman, a New York City-based public defender, pointed out in a tweet that four of the concurring justices — Cantil-Sakauye, Corrigan, Jenkins and Guerrero — are former prosecutors, while both dissenting justices — Groban and Liu — are not.
“A reminder that, even in places where you might not realize it, the courts are incredibly unbalanced — both as to prosecutor/defense lawyers but also as to government lawyers/lawyers whose career is based in holding govt accountable and protecting individuals,” tweeted Chris Geidner, who covers the U.S. Supreme Court, law and politics for various outlets.