Thursday, August 06, 2015

People v. Brown (Cal. Supreme Ct. - Aug. 6, 2015)

Here's a nice, sensible, moderate opinion from the California Supreme Court.  To which every reasonable person can concur.

Including me.

The Court unanimously holds that it counts as a detention -- and hence requires reasonable suspicion -- for a police officer to pull up behind a parked car and activate his lights, since a reasonable person would not feel free to leave in such a setting.

Of course that's right.  Of course you wouldn't feel free to leave if a police officer did that to you.  You'd know full well that if you left, they'd simply chase you, and force you to pull over.  That's clearly true.  The Attorney General's argument to the contrary is meritless.

(The caveats in Justice Corrigan's opinion on this point are similarly sensible.  Maybe there's a different result if an officer pulls up behind a parked vehicle that's broken down on the highway and turns on her lights.  It's possible that such a person might simply think the officer was there to help.  Fair enough.)

Not only is Justice Corrigan right as an empirical matter -- a reasonable driver would not, in fact, feel free to leave -- but it's also good policy.  We should prefer to have rules that say that it counts as a detention when officers activate their lights.  If for no other reason than we want people to do precisely that -- to stop, and to not feel free to leave -- in such a setting.  Especially since citizens don't know what the officers know at the time (e.g., why they're being stopped), we don't want people to have to guess whether an officer with her lights on "really means it" or whether sitting there would simply be voluntary.  The world's a better place if there's a rule that's as bright line as possible.  When an officer turns on her lights, and those lights are clearly (as here) directed at you, I think it make sense to generally view that display as a command.  "Stop".

So I'm on board.

At the same time, I'm also on board with the Court's unanimous decision that there was, in fact, reasonable suspicion here.  I'll not bore you with the details.  But there was a 911 call about a fight with a loaded gun in the alley, the person stopped here came from that alley, you could hear the fight in the background in the 911 call, and the officer could reasonably suspect that the guy in the car had something to do with the fight.

Turns out that he probably didn't.  But no matter.  The officer had sufficient cause to briefly detain the guy to figure out the scoop.  And when the officer went up to the car and smelled alcohol, and eventually arrested the guy for DUI, that was all good and proper.  No basis for reversal.

Good opinion.  Nice, careful, rational, coherent, and sensible.  Plus unanimous.

Were they all to be this way.