“Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. If I stay it will be double.” Like the classic 80’s rock song by The Clash, the question occurs when you see blue lights in your rearview mirror, is that a seizure? A seizure is the act or an instance of taking possession of a person or property by legal right or process. Black’s Law Dictionary 1480 (9th ed. 1990). In North Carolina case law, there has been discussion of whether or not the use of blue lights by a police officer is a seizure under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Only police vehicles may be equipped with blue lights. G.S. § 20-130.1(c). A motorist is required by law to pull over when an officer activates his blue lights and siren. G.S. § 20-157. At this point, most people do not feel free to leave from an encounter with an officer and in fact, often they consent to a search, as well. However, the use of blue lights by an officer is merely a factor in consideration of whether a motorist has been seized for 4th Amendment purpose. State v. Baker, 208 N.C. App. 376 (2010).
In State v. Baker, the defendant argued that the seizure occurred when the officer activated his blue lights. On the contrary, the State argued that the defendant was free to leave until the time the gun was found. The officer explained that the purpose of the blue lights was to notify motorist of the presence of his patrol vehicle. The case was remanded for further findings. See generally, State v. Baker, 208 N. C. App. 376 (2010).
However, in other states, a seizure has been found unreasonable when a person was detained by the use of blue lights. The Court of Appeals of Idaho explained that the use of overhead lights may indicate that a driver has been seized, especially if the officer has not informed the driver he is free to leave. State v. Willoughby, 147 Idaho 482, 486 (2009)
Overall, in North Carolina, the use of blue lights is a factor to be considered along with other factors such as: 1) the number of police officers present, 2) whether officer displayed a weapon, 3) the officer words and tone of voice, 4) any physical contact between the officer and the officer and the individual, 5) whether the officer retained the individuals identification or property, 6) location of encounter, 7) whether the officer blocked the individuals path. State v. Icard, 363 N.C. 303, 309 (2009). So when discussing a police officer stop, it’s important to ascertain all the relevant facts related to the officers interaction with the defendant. Judges will weigh each of these factors in making the underlying determination of whether the defendant was free to leave. If a judge finds that a person was improperly seized, any evidence found after a search or seizure may be excluded from evidence. See United States v. Crews, 445 U.S. 463 (1980).
The use of blue lights by an officer is not the only factor to be considered when determining if a seizure is taking place. The court will look at the entire picture of your case and not just one factor on its own in North Carolina.
Written & Researched by Megan S. White, Legal Assistant at Parton & Associates and Third Year Law Student
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