State v. Eagle: Blue Lights and Impeded Egress Equal a Fourth Amendment Seizure

The North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Eagle, 2022-NCCOA-680, ___ N.C. App. ___, 879 S.E.2d 377 (2022), considered whether the driver of a car that had already stopped when a patrol officer pulled in behind it with blue lights activated was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court had ruled that the driver was not immediately seized by the officer in this encounter. Instead, the court ruled that a seizure occurred only when the officer took Ms. Eagle’s driver’s license and returned to her patrol car. By this point, the officer had developed reasonable suspicion to believe Ms. Eagle was impaired. The Court of Appeals reversed, determining that Eagle was seized at the outset of this encounter. This post discusses State v. Eagle and its relationship to other recent seizure jurisprudence.

Facts. An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy was performing nightly business checks at Maple View Farms around 3 a.m. when she saw the defendant’s car pull into the driveway of the Maple View Agricultural Center, which was closed. The entrance drive was blocked by a locked gate. The deputy pulled into the driveway behind the car with her blue lights on.  She stopped at an angle about 10 feet behind the car, blocking it into the driveway.

The deputy testified that she turned on her blue lights not because she had seen a criminal violation but instead for safety reasons since her patrol car was jutting out into the road when she stopped.

The deputy ran the defendant’s plate before getting out of her car and approaching the driver’s side door of the car. When the deputy saw and spoke to the defendant driver, Ms. Eagle, she smelled a strong odor of alcohol coming from the car and observed that Eagle had red, glassy eyes and slurred speech.

Eagle was ultimately charged with driving while impaired.  She moved to suppress the evidence gathered after the deputy approached her car, contending that she was unlawfully seized without reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion. Eagle pled guilty, preserving her right to appeal, and appealed the trial court’s ruling on the suppression motion.

When does a seizure occur? A person is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when (1) an officer applies physical force, however slight, to the person or (2) the person submits to an officer’s show of authority. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991). When a person, including the occupant of a vehicle, is already stationary at the time an officer displays her authority, it can be difficult to determine whether the person has submitted to the officer’s show of authority or instead has remained in place because he prefers not to go anywhere. The U.S. Supreme Court in Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007), explained the fact-specific determination this way:

[W]hat may amount to submission depends on what a person was doing before the show of authority: a fleeing man is not seized until he is physically overpowered, but one sitting in a chair may submit to authority by not getting up to run away.

551 U.S. at 262.

The Brendlin Court concluded that the defendant-passenger in that case submitted to the officer’s show of authority during a traffic stop by staying inside the vehicle after it stopped. Id.

A seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks questions – even if the person stops or remains in place and interacts with the officer. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991). The controlling inquiry is whether a reasonable person would feel free to ignore the officer and go about his or her business; if so, the encounter is consensual and is not a seizure for which reasonable suspicion is required. Id. at 434. To answer this question, a court must consider whether officers created physical or psychological barriers to the defendant’s ability to terminate the encounter. State v. Isenhour, 194 N.C. App. 539 (2008) (acknowledging that blocking in a defendant’s car could be such a physical barrier and that activating blue lights could be a psychological barrier; finding that neither occurred; and concluding that the defendant was not seized).

Court of Appeals’ analysis. The Court of Appeals in Eagle concluded that the deputy created a physical barrier that impeded the defendant’s movement when the deputy positioned her patrol car 10 feet behind the defendant’s car at an angle. Given the locked gate in front of Ms. Eagle’s car, the Court noted that Eagle would “have had to narrowly skirt around . . . the police cruiser while backing up in order to avoid either hitting the cruiser or running off the road.” Slip op. at ¶ 27. The positioning of the patrol car and the activation of its lights also created a psychological barrier, the Court stated, since “most people would feel compelled to remain in their car and wait to speak with the officer, knowing that attempting to leave would only end in trouble and/or danger.” Slip op. at ¶ 28.

In Eagle, as it had last year in State v. Steele, 277 N.C. App. 124 (2021), the Court recognized the likely consequences if the defendant had chosen to ignore the officer’s show of authority.  In Eagle, that show of authority was the blue lights. In Steele, it was the officer’s waving to the defendant’s vehicle to stop. In both cases, the Court noted that resisting the officers’ commands could lead to charges under G.S. 14-233. The Court opined that when a person would likely face criminal charges for failing to comply with an officer’s request, the person has been seized. The Eagle Court further noted that it did not want to suggest to a person in Ms. Eagle’s circumstance that she was free to attempt to drive away as doing so might lead to a car chase or the use of deadly force. The Court acknowledged the inherent danger that arises any time a driver tries to leave a situation in which an officer has attempted a seizure. Slip op. at ¶ 30 (citing Torres v. Madrid, __ U.S. __ 141 S. Ct. 989 (2021) (considering a civil rights action filed after an officer fired 13 shots at the petitioner, who drove away when an officer tried to open the door of her car)). The Court concluded that Ms. Eagle made the “only safe and reasonable choice available” when she remained in her car. Slip op. at ¶ 31.

The Court of Appeals further faulted the trial court for failing to adequately account for the time and location of the encounter, which occurred on an isolated road at 3 a.m. In the Court’s view, a reasonable person in the defendant’s circumstance – blocked between a locked gate and a patrol car with flashing lights — would have been intimidated by and more susceptible to police pressure at this time and at this location than she would have been if the encounter had happened in a crowded place during the day.

Thus, based on the totality of the circumstances, the Court of Appeals determined that Eagle was seized when the deputy pulled in behind her car with blue lights activated.

Why did the trial court hold otherwise? The Court of Appeals’ analysis makes its conclusion seem self-evident. But, in truth, the case law preceding Eagle did not make the correct legal conclusion so obvious. The Court of Appeals has stated on several occasions that mere activation of blue lights does not constitute a seizure. In State v. Nunez, 274 N.C. App. 89 (2020), for example, the Court held that the defendant was not seized when an officer activated the blue lights on his patrol car in a parking lot some distance away from the defendant’s disabled vehicle at 2 a.m. The Court noted that the officer could have turned on the lights to signal to another officer or to signal to the defendant that help was available.

And in State v. Turnage, 259 N.C. App. 719 (2018) (discussed here), the Court determined that a van already stopped in the roadway was not seized when a detective turned on his vehicle’s blue light given that the defendant subsequently fled the scene. In reaching its determination, the Turnage Court explained that “[a] vehicle inexplicably stopped in the middle of a public roadway is a circumstance sufficient, by itself, to indicate someone in the vehicle may need assistance, or that mischief is afoot. At the very least, it is a situation which warrants notice to other motorists and it is not the role of this, or any other court, to indulge in unrealistic second-guessing of a law enforcement officer’s judgment call.” Id. at 725-26 (internal quotations omitted).

Certainly, those cases are distinguishable as they did not involve blue lights in addition to impeding the defendant’s route of egress. As already noted, that combination along with the hour and location was deemed by the Eagle Court to constitute a seizure.