Police Lights

Do Emergency Lights Mean You Are Seized?

This recent case out of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals deals with the age-old question – does activation of the overhead emergency lights signify a seizure thus invoking 4th Amendment protections? This appeal stemmed from a search which took place after the police spoke with defendant Desmond Gaines. Let’s take a look at what the 10th Circuit had to say about this case that originates in Kansas City, Kansas.


In the early morning of August 2015, Kansas City, Kansas Police Department received a 911 call from an anonymous source claiming that a man dressed in red clothes had just sold drugs in a parking lot.  Officer Rowland and Officer Davis, in two separate cruisers, pulled into the lot and activated their emergency lights.  The officers parked behind a vehicle occupied by a male wearing red clothes.  Officer Rowland ordered Desmond Gaines to get out of the vehicle and then confronted him with the information the officers had received.  The officers then observed an open container of alcohol and smelled PCP and informed Gaines that they were going to detain him.

With that, Gaines grabbed a black pouch and fled.  The officers apprehended Gaines and recovered the black pouch containing cocaine, PCP, cash and a gun.  Once at the booking facility, officers learned that Gaines was the subject of a warrant.

Gaines was tried in the federal district court where he filed a motion to suppress the evidence.  The motion was denied and Gaines was subsequently convicted of drug and firearm charges.  This appeal followed.

10th Circuit Findings

The main issue on appeal is whether the actions of the officers constituted a stop and, therefore, triggered 4th Amendment protections.  The district court ruled that the entire incident was consensual and, consequently, no constitution protections need be considered.  Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit did not buy the officer’s account that the only reason they activated their lights was to provide safety to the officers and Mr. Gaines.

After reviewing the officers’ dashboard video and the footage from several stationary surveillance cameras in the area, the 10th Circuit determined that a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.  In fact, the court quoted a Kansas statute that requires motorists to stop when an officer activates the emergency lights.  The court listed the following factors as evidence that it was reasonable for Mr. Gaines to believe he was not free to leave:

  • Both officers activated their overhead lights
  • One officer gestured to Gaines to get out of the car
  • An officer stood in front of Gaines and told him they were there because they received a call that he was selling “dope”
  • The other officer circled the car and began looking inside

The court concluded that “(1) the police officers showed their authority and (2) no reasonable person would have felt free to leave”.

The prosecution argued that even if the original stop was improper, under the attenuation doctrine the fact that there was a valid warrant would allow the introduction of the evidence.  The court disagreed finding that, under Arizona v Gant the fact that there was an arrest warrant may not have given officers authority to search the car.

The 10th Circuit sent the case back to the trial court to determine 2 issues – (1) whether the officers had reasonable suspicion to make the stop or, in the alternative, did Gaines effectively abandon the bag when he threw it, thus relinquishing any expectation of privacy over its contents.


We will be monitoring this case to see where it goes.  That said, this is not the first time we have looked at a case where the activation of emergency lights by the officer has rung the bell on 4th Amendment protections before the officer considered that possibility.  Would we be looking at this case if the officers had simply approached Gaines’ car with no emergency lights or sat back to observe Gaines’ behavior before approaching him? We must stress the importance of using techniques that do not trigger a seizure and stretch the citizen contact to a point where facts supporting reasonable suspicion have been developed.