Spotlighting Suspect Vehicles
The police illuminating the inside of a vehicle with a spotlight does not constitute a detention absent other circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe he was not free to leave. Whether or not a police officer illuminating a vehicle’s interior with his or her spotlight constitutes a “show of authority” sufficient to cause a detention of the vehicle’s occupants requires a consideration of the totality of the surrounding circumstances.
At around 8:45 p.m. on a March evening (relevant only to the fact that it was dark out), San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Grubb, in uniform, was patrolling a Stockton residential neighborhood in a marked patrol car with his headlights’ high beams on for “extra visibility.” The area was known for narcotics sales and weapons possession. Deputy Grubb drove past a BMW legally parked in front of a residence close to a streetlight. Although the car’s engine and headlights were off, smoke visibly emanated from the “slightly cracked” windows. As he passed the BMW, Deputy Grubb made eye contact with the three occupants; two of whom were wearing hooded sweatshirts and comfortably reclining in the front seats. The third occupant was in the rear seat. Making a U-turn, Deputy Grubb pulled up to and parked within 15 to 20 feet behind the car without blocking it in. The deputy turned his spotlight on, shinning it into the rear window of the BMW. He did not use either his overhead emergency lights nor his siren. After taking about 15 to 20 seconds to inform dispatch of his location, Deputy Grubb got out of his patrol car and walked up to the BMW at a normal pace. As he did so, a woman—the backseat passenger—“jumped out” of the BMW, closing the door behind her. Deputy Grubb later testifying that “[i]t was very quick and kind of abrupt the way that she opened the door and quickly stepped out. I felt it was unusual.” As she walked back towards the rear of the BMW, Deputy Grubb asked her what she was doing. She responded; “I live here.” Concerned for his safety, Deputy Grubb told her in a “calm and moderate voice” to stand near the sidewalk behind the BMW where he could keep an eye on her. The woman complied. Continuing to walk towards the driver’s side of the car and coming up to within a few feet of it, Deputy Grubb could smell marijuana smoke coming from inside. Illuminating the rear passenger area of the car (which had tinted windows) with his flashlight, he observed one large and two smaller clear plastic bags on the floorboard containing a green leady substance he recognized to be marijuana. Deputy Grubb then contacted the driver (defendant), who verbally identified himself when asked as Leon William Tacardon. The passenger produced identification. While talking with defendant, Deputy Grubb saw a partially burned, hand-rolled cigarette in the center console. When asked, defendant admitted to being on probation. A records check done minutes later confirmed that fact, and that his probation was subject to search and seizure conditions (i.e., a “Fourth waiver”). With everyone put into the back seat of the patrol car, a search of the BMW resulted in the recovery of the three baggies of marijuana (696 grams of the stuff) and a vial containing 75 pills (later determined to be hydrocodone). Searching defendant incident to his arrest resulted in the recovery of $1,904 in cash. Charged in state court with possession for sale of hydrocodone and marijuana, defendant’s motion to suppress (per P.C. § 1538.5) made at the preliminary examination, arguing that all his dope and the money were the products of an illegal detention, was denied. However, upon refiling his suppression motion as a part of a motion to dismiss (pursuant to P.C. § 995) at the trial court level, the motion was granted. The People appealed. The Third District Court of Appeal reversed, upholding the detention and the subsequent search. (See People v. Tacardon (July 22, 2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 89, briefed at California Legal Update, Vol. 25 #10; Aug. 19, 2020.) Defendant appealed to the California Supreme Court.