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Search and Seizure Spotlight: Flashing a Jeep Isn't a Seizure

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 27, 2012 4:03 PM

Joseph Mabery was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court sentenced Mabery to 327 months' imprisonment. That's a pretty harsh sentence, but the court noted that Mabery had an extensive criminal history of theft, assault, and drug charges, and had never been lawfully employed.

Mabery obviously had to challenge the search -- who wouldn't, when facing over 27 years for gun possession -- so he argued to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that the cops who discovered his contraband illegally seized his vehicle by shining a spotlight on it.

A spotlight, however, is not a tractor beam. Illumination is not a means of detention. Mabery lost his appeal.

The Eighth Circuit noted that not every encounter between a police officer and a citizen constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A seizure only occurs when an officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained a person's liberty.

Here, police officers in Kansas City, Missouri, saw Mabery sitting in a Jeep parked outside an apartment building at 3 a.m. One of the officers claimed that Mabery tried "to kind of hide from me and turn the dome light out in the vehicle" when he spotted the cops. Since there had been "trouble with this apartment complex," the officers stopped, backed up, spotlighted the Jeep, and activated the rear emergency lights on the police car. Mabery got out of the Jeep, and ran away from the police.

Fleeing from a spotlighted vehicle is far more suspicious that sitting in a parking lot at night, so the cops chased and apprehended him. That's how they eventually found the gun. Mabery claims that the police detained him without probable cause by stopping their cruiser in front of a parking lot entrance and shining a light on his Jeep.

The Eighth Circuit hears a number of illegal seizure cases. In the past, the court has ruled:

  • Approaching a car and knocking on the window does not amount to a show of authority such that a reasonable person would interpret as a show of authority.
  • There's no seizure when officer approaches a parked vehicle for a "welfare check" on the occupants.
  • There's no seizure when an officer pulls his patrol car behind a vehicle parked off road, and activates amber warning lights.
  • It's "implausible that parking a marked cruiser 15 feet to 15 yards away from a parked vehicle signifies a show of authority rather than a mere encounter."

The weight of the precedent didn't bode well for Mabery. The Eighth Circuit found that the act of shining a spotlight on Mabery's vehicle from the street was certainly no more intrusive (and arguably less so) than knocking on the vehicle's window.

In other words, the police have quite a bit of latitude when approaching car occupants. If they find contraband on your client, it'll probably be admissible.

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