Red Lights on Parked Car: Detention

by Charles Gillingham

This week, the California Supreme Court addressed whether an officer pulling up behind a parked car with the emergency lights flashing is a detention. The Supreme Court concluded yes, it is a detention.



The San Diego County Sheriff's Department received a 911 call to an address on a report of people fighting. The reporting party could also hear someone yell the "gun is loaded." The caller estimated more than four people were involved. The RP also reported there was a car in the alley associated with the situation.

Deputy Geasland was told that four suspects were fighting and there had been mention of a loaded gun. Geasland saw a car leaving the location travelling in the direction of the car described by the RP. Geasland yelled to the defendant whether he had seen a fight. The defendant did not respond. Geasland continued down the alley but saw no one.

Deputy Geasland found defendant's car parked a few houses away and pulled behind the car and activated his emergency lights. He approached the car and spoke with the defendant. The defendant had objective signs of being UTI and was arrested and charged with a felony DUI. He moved to suppress the observations of the officer. The trial court ruled no detention took place until the deputy saw signs of intoxication. The Appellate Court agreed that no detention occurs when a vehicle is already stopped. The CA Supreme Court took the case to determine whether when a deputy has emergency lights on behind a parked car is a detention.


The critical question is when did the defendant's detention occur?. If the contact was consensual, in other words, a completely voluntary interaction where the officers ask questions and the individual answers, then no legal justification was necessary. But if Geasland detained the defendant when he turned on the emergency lights, Geasand would need articulable facts to justify the detention.

A detention, of course, is a situation when the officer by means of physical force or show of authority has in some way restrained the liberty of an individual. The individual is seized when the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed s/he was not free to leave.

Here, the CA Supreme Court found that defendant acquiesced to the show of authority by staying in the vehicle and no objective evidence suggested that defendant, or any other reasonable person, would believe they were free to leave. The court also held that there was reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant as there was a citizen informant calling 911 about a violent altercation with potential firearm involvement, the defendant was driving away from the area, there was no other pedestrian or vehicle traffic, and defendant was unresponsive to the officer's question.

The court upheld the detention finding the deputy had no alternative but to contact the defendant to identify him and determine his involvement, if any, in the preceding altercation.

Significantly, the CA Supreme Court did not find that a detention ALWAYS occurs when a patrol car turns on emergency lights behind stopped vehicle. The Court, however, made it clear that under circumstances similar to these, the well trained officer will have articulable facts to support what she did.