In People v. Tacardon, a 5-2 Supreme Court today holds that a police officer’s “shining a spotlight [on a legally parked car] for illumination does not ipso facto constitute a detention under the Fourth Amendment.” Instead, the court doesn’t adopt a bright-line rule, saying, “the proper inquiry requires consideration of the totality of the circumstances, including the use of a spotlight.”

The court’s opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan finds it significant that the “case involves the use of a spotlight, rather than red and blue emergency lights,” the use of the latter having led the court to find a detention in an earlier case. “[T]he use of a spotlight generally conveys a different meaning to a reasonable person than the use of a patrol car’s emergency lights,” the court explains.

Justice Joshua Groban concurs and dissents, and Justice Goodwin Liu dissents.

Justice Groban says the superior court should be the one to “assess the totality of relevant facts rather than have this court make a determination now with respect to only some of them.”

Justice Liu’s 13-page dissent draws extended responses from the majority. Among other things, he writes that after the officer shined a spotlight on the defendant’s car, “An ‘ordinary citizen’ in Tacardon’s position ‘would not feel at liberty to simply walk [or drive] away from the officer.’ [Citation.] I certainly wouldn’t, and I suspect readers of today’s opinion wouldn’t either.” He says about the majority’s distinction between colored emergency lights and spotlights, “I imagine this conclusion comes as news to anyone who has ever had their car illuminated by a police spotlight.” Quoting a Justice Sotomayor dissent that “ ‘it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of [suspicionless] scrutiny,’ ” Liu notes that “not all individuals feel the same degree of freedom to rebuff police advances, even if the law says they are free to leave” and he “fear[s] that . . . [the court’s opinion will] deepen[ ] the distrust that some communities have long had toward law enforcement.”

The court reverses the Third District Court of Appeal’s published opinion, but only because the appellate court is found to have wrongly presumed a finding by the superior court on a detention-related factor other than the use of a spotlight.

Also, the Supreme Court disapproves the Fourth District, Division Two, decision in People v. Kidd (2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 12, of which the Supreme Court had denied review. (Related: Disapprovals of review-denied opinions show the Supreme Court is not an error-correction court.) Justice Liu asserts that “the fact that Kidd is in the minority [of similar state and federal decisions] does not diminish the soundness of its reasoning.”