Police Spotlight Case Law
Police Use of Spotlights Cases in California:
In People v. Roth (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 211, . . . one of two police officers in a patrol car shone a spotlight on Roth and stopped the patrol car. Both officers got out, and one stood behind the patrol car door and told Roth to approach in order to talk with him. The trial court denied Roth's motion to suppress evidence discovered after Roth approached, although it found a detention had occurred because the officer had ' "issued a command" ' to Roth to approach him. The appellate court, accepting the trial court's factual finding that a 'command' had been given , agreed that a detention had occurred because when the officer shone the spotlight, stopped the car, the deputies got out, and the command was given, 'a reasonable person would not believe himself or herself free to leave.'
In People v. McKelvy (1972) 23 Cal.App.3d 1027 . . . four officers in a patrol car encountered the defendant at 3:00 a.m. After they turned their spotlight on him and saw him put a dark object in his pocket, they stopped their vehicle and approached him, each armed with either a shotgun or carbine. One officer asked defendant to hand over the object he had placed in his pocket, and defendant handed over certain restricted drugs. The appellate court rejected the argument that the defendant had voluntarily consented to a search, reasoning that 'defendant was standing in a police spotlight, surrounded by four officers all armed with shotguns or carbines. In these circumstances no matter how politely the officer may have phrased his request for the object, it is apparent that defendant's compliance was in fact under compulsion of a direct command by the officer.'
On the other hand, in People v. Rico (1979) 97 Cal.App.3d 124 . . . a police officer was looking for a car carrying two persons suspected of having been involved in a shooting. The officer drove up beside a possible car and shone his spotlight into it to observe the occupants. Unable to see them, he dropped back behind the car and followed it without employing his emergency lights or otherwise trying to stop the car. After about five minutes, the car pulled over to the side of the road on its own. Noting that the officer had not tried to stop the car and that he 'only used his spotlight to get a better look at the occupants,' the appellate court found that 'this momentary use of the spotlight and the notable absence of any additional overt action is . . . insufficient to be categorized as a detention . . . .'
In People v. Franklin (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 935 . . . a police officer spotted the defendant, Franklin, walking down the street in a seedy neighborhood at midnight wearing a coat that seemed too warm for the weather conditions. When the officer put his patrol car's spotlight on Franklin, Franklin tried to hide a white bundle he was carrying. The officer stopped his car directly behind Franklin and began to use his radio, and Franklin approached the car. The officer got out and met him in the area of the headlights. Without the officer's initiating any conversation, Franklin repeatedly asked, ' "What's going on?" ' Rejecting Franklin's claim that he had been detained as a result of these actions, the appellate court observed that 'the officer did not block appellant's way; he directed no verbal requests or commands to appellant. Further, the officer did not alight immediately from his car and pursue appellant. Coupling the spotlight with the officer's parking the patrol car, appellant rightly might feel himself the object of official scrutiny. However, such directed scrutiny does not amount to a detention.'
In People v. Perez (1989) 211 Cal.App.3d 1492 . . . a police officer parked his patrol vehicle in front of a car occupied by two people. The officer left plenty of room for the car to leave. He shone his high beams and spotlights, but not his emergency lights, 'in order to get a better look at the occupants and gauge their reactions.' The car's occupants 'slouched over in the front seat' but did not otherwise respond to the lights. The officer walked to the car, tapped on the driver's side window with a lit flashlight, and asked the defendant to roll down his window. The appellate court found that 'the conduct of the officer here did not manifest police authority to the degree leading a reasonable person to conclude he was not free to leave. While the use of high beams and spotlights might cause a reasonable person to feel himself the object of official scrutiny, such directed scrutiny does not amount to a detention.' Of particular importance to the court was that the police officer had parked his car in such a way that it did not block the defendant's car and that the officer had not activated his emergency lights, unlike circumstances in two other cases cited by the appellate court. " (People v. Garry, supra, 156 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1107-1109.)