Does a Police Officer Shining a Spotlight Constitute a Detention?

Top Torrance Criminal Lawyer

Matthew Ruff, Torrance Criminal Defense Attorney

California law allows a criminal defendant to challenge his or her arrest and any subsequent searches on the ground they were in violation of the person’s 4th Amendment Constitutional rights.  In order to invoke fourth amendment protection the individual must have been detained at the time of the alleged illegal action.  Recently the California Appeals Court addressed a recurring question, whether shining a spotlight on a vehicle is in fact detaining the occupants of the car.

In People v. Kidd (2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 12 the Court held the Defendant was detained without reasonable suspicion where an officer pulled in behind the defendant’s car, which was stopped on the side of a residential street with its fog lights on, and pointed spotlights at the car. In the early hours of the morning, an officer saw a car parked on a residential street with its amber fog lights on. Wanting to see what the two people inside the car were doing, the officer pulled in behind them, pointed his spotlights at their car, and exited his vehicle. As he approached the car, the officer smelled marijuana. After defendant (the driver) indicated he was on probation and there was a gun in the car, the officer searched the car and found contraband. Defendant was charged with several felony offenses, but the trial court granted defendant’s motion to set aside the information and all charges were dismissed. The People appealed.

The Court ruled an encounter between a law enforcement officer and a defendant is a detention if, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not feel free to leave. The Court determined in this case that Kidd was detained when the officer pulled in behind Kidd and trained the spotlights on Kidd’s car. Although the officer did not turn on his colored emergency lights, motorists are trained to immediately yield when a police car pulls in behind them and turns its lights on. A reasonable person in this situation would expect that if he drove off, the officer would respond by pursuing him with the siren activated, and the fact that the officer immediately got out of the car and started to approach Kidd removed any ambiguity about whether it was a detention. The detention was unjustified because the officer did not have reasonable articulable suspicion Kidd committed or was about to commit a crime. It is not illegal for a parked car to use fog lamps without headlamps and, by his own admission, the officer did not observe any wrongdoing. Although there was no indication of bad faith, the officer’s detention of Kidd in the absence of reasonable suspicion was deliberate, warranting suppression of the evidence. Thanks CCAP.

About thetorranceattorney

Matthew Ruff is a Torrance criminal defense attorney located near the 405 freeway on Crenshaw Blvd. Focusing on DUI and serious criminal cases for over twenty years. In addition to criminal cases, Matthew also defends clients at the DMV.
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