Traffic patrols in unmarked cars are legal, say local officers

The in basket: Michael Denton writes, “Recently a new video has appeared on YouTube showing a citizen pulling over a sheriff’s deputy in Spokane for performing traffic patrol in an unmarked sheriffs vehicle.  The citizen in the video goes on to cite Washington RCW 46.08.065 and that the sheriffs deputy was in violation of said RCW.  Further research on this particular instance indicated that the patrol vehicle in question was new and awaiting the installation of the vinyl decals, a poor excuse in my opinion.
“Driving around Kitsap County, a motorist can usually spot at least one unmarked patrol car, whether it be WSP or Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office performing routine traffic patrol stops,” he said. “I have witnessed a few years back an unmarked black Subaru WRX sedan that was pulling over people on Newberry Hill Road for speeding up the hill.

“Now at the time I thought that was very sneaky, and it seemed like a good tactic using a vehicle that looked like nothing to do with law enforcement, until I read the RCW, which the way I comprehend makes these unmarked patrol vehicles illegal unless they are undercover or confidential investigators.

“How can these sheriffs officers and state patrol officers be getting away with pulling over motorists for regular traffic violations and not be in violation of the RCW?” he asked.

The out basket: Deputy Scott Wilson of the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office says the department “respectfully disagrees” with Michael’s reading of the law

“The wording in RCW 46.08.065 (second sentence) reads:   ‘This section shall not apply to  vehicles of a sheriff’s office, local police department, OR any vehicles used by local peace officers under public authority for special undercover or confidential investigative purposes,'”Scott said

“This issue comes up from time-to-time, (raised)  by those who believe that they have read and interpreted RCW 46.08.065 correctly.  We are not in violation of the RCW, as alleged by the author of the e-mail.  In fact, the wording specifically exempts sheriff’s offices and local police departments and, furthermore, exempts certain vehicles used by law enforcement in specific roles.

“There has been ample review of this RCW in the office of the Washington State Attorney General as well as our own county prosecutor’s office.

“The Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office has reviewed our policy as it applies to this specific RCW.  We will continue to equip / mark Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office vehicles as determined by the role that a particular vehicle will be assigned when it is placed into service, or as its assignment may change.”

Trooper Russ Winger of the state patrol here says his department agrees.

“Unmarked patrol vehicles have long been in use by the WSP for various traffic enforcement duties. The vehicles are equipped with emergency lights and equipment. There is nothing illegal about the use of these vehicles for traffic and other law enforcement duties.

“The patrol has several makes and models of unmarked patrol vehicles in use throughout the state. They are very effective in traffic enforcement and that is why we use them.”


25 thoughts on “Traffic patrols in unmarked cars are legal, say local officers

  1. To bad there wasn’t a way to CC this story to that guy from Spokane and figure how to wipe that “see what I just did” look off his face. You know I have no problem with law enforcement using any kind of vehicle as long as it is being used to enforce the law. I have seen several different types of makes and models of vehicles used all over the state. Now while I did not grow up here, I remember law enforcement in Texas using vehicles seized in drug busts and other crimes refitted to be used as a cop car. Everything from muscle cars from the 60s and 70s to corvettes and Ferraris. Our police chief even had a CJ5 jeep as his patrol car. My brother in law used to drive a 70s style ford pickup as his patrol vehicle. Most were repainted and marked with law enforcement decals but some were not. It did save the state a lot of money using the repossessed vehicles along with local tax payers. It could be a good idea here, except I think all the nannys would get mad and complain that they just got a ticket for driving 60 in a school zone by a cop who was driving a unmarked mustang…

    1. Being able to use or sell vehicles and other private property just opens the door to fraud and abuse. Don’t believe me? How about I have a couple of cop friends of mine pull you over and plant some drugs in your car while “searching” and we’ll take YOUR car!

  2. Reading the quote of the RCW, it seems clear that sheriffs and local police officers (city police like Poulsbo, Bremerton) are exempt, but how does WSP claim an exemption? They are not sheriffs, nor are they local police officers. Do they claim that they are using them “special undercover or confidential investigative purposes?”

    I was also curious what the intent of the law was originally. Reading the full thing (link below), it looks like it’s trying to ensure that official government vehicles are marked so that people know they are government vehicles. It doesn’t state why we should know or care. Maybe it’s so we can see whether they’re abusing the official vehicle? It looks like the laws in this section were originally drafted back in the 30s, probably when the state decided to centralize vehicle licensing. It would be nice if we could get a “diff” of the law going back in time to its original passing (like they do for computer source code and things like wiki edits).

    There is also a later section specifically allowing WSP to exempt themselves from the marking requirements. So that answers that.

    1. Subsection (3) of the RCW gives an out. “Traffic control vehicles of the Washington state patrol may be exempted from the requirements of subsection (2)… at the descretion of the chief of the Washington state patrol.” Pretty clear to me. It helps if you read the whole law and not just the first subsection.

      1. Actually, you need read no further than the first sentence of the RCW to see WA State patrol exempt. ‘other than the state of WA’

        (1) It is unlawful for any public officer having charge of any vehicle owned or controlled by any county, city, town, or public body in this state other than the state of Washington and used in public business to operate the same upon the public highways of this state unless and until there shall be displayed upon such automobile or other motor vehicle in letters of contrasting color not less than one and one-quarter inches in height in a conspicuous place on the right and left sides thereof, the name of such county, city, town, or other public body, together with the name of the department or office upon the business of which the said vehicle is used.

      2. You left out the part of the law that restricts the exemption to vehicles involved in undercover work, or special investigations. Traffic patrol doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

  3. I was raised to respect our police. Their use of unmarked cars by the Kitsap County Sheriff and Washington State Patrol in ways other than for special undercover or confidential investigative purposes is eroding that respect. The role of our police has historically been “to protect and serve”. Now they are treating the general population with the same attitude and tools they use for criminals.

    I believe the intent of RCW 46.08.065 seems incredibly clear, and claiming “OR” gives them legal status to use clandestine methods is perhaps legal but definitely an unethical twist of the words … pretty reminiscent of President Clinton’s debate about what “is” means, huh.

    The backlash of police using unmarked cars like they do is that public support of them will further decline because it is apparent they can’t be trusted to do what is right.

    How nice it would be if our police could take the high road and be there to protect and serve.

    1. Couple of things John:

      1. The “general population” contains criminals, and vice versa. We are all one population and you should stay away from an “us versus them” analysis.

      2. If you violate the law, you violate the law and you have to suffer sanctions for the violation. If you don’t want a ticket, don’t violate the law. Simple as that.

      3. It is not “sneaky” or underhanded to use unmarked cars, it is simply more effective to use unmarked cars. They’re not playing a game of hide and seek or catch me if you can, they are trying to use the most effective means possible to enforce traffic laws. And I totally expect the police to do just that.

      1. Unarguably, unmarked cars are more effective at finding and citing violations. Without a doubt, people drive ‘within the law’ when in the presence of a police vehicle.

        However, if the intent of law enforcement is increased public safety, then logic would imply that marking all police cars would be reasonable. The simple presence of a known police cruiser makes people operate ‘within the law’, while the unmarked car allows people to operate within their own judgement of safety. Therefore, unmarked police cars do not increase public safety to the degree that marked police cars do. I.e. a couple citations from an unmarked car has a lesser public safety benefit than the general presence of a marked car.
        Law enforcement, mark your vehicles. It improves public safety, over that of unmarked vehicles.

      2. Further, in response to Spaulding, if a law is unjust, should we then also follow the law? On philosophical grounds, a speeding ticket is unjust. No ones life, liberty or property have been violated by an individual deciding that 75mph is safe within a 70 mph interstate zone. They have created no injustice in my mind. The taking of liberty and property ($) from them is however unjust.

      3. Spaulding, I like 1 & 2 of what you said. However, I have a slightly different opinion on your 3. If there is a law on the books that the Law Enforcement community is violating, they themselves are securing conviction during the act of a crime. That is “sneaky” in my book. Either follow it or get it change and stay beyond reproach.

        I think you are missing some key words.
        a.) Subsection (1)” It is unlawful for ANY PUBLIC OFFICER having charge of any vehicle OWNED OR CONTROLLED by…other than the state of Washington AND USED…”
        b.) “This section shall (as in 46.08.065 Subsection 1…) shall not apply to vehicles of…or any vehicles used…under public authority FOR SPECIAL UNDERCOVER OR CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATIVE PURPOSES.”
        c.) Subsection (3) “SUBSECTION (2) (as in state vehicles purchase after 7/1/89 must be plainly and conspicuously marked in lower left-hand of rear window…) SHALL NOT APPLY to vehicles used by Washington state patrol for general undercover or confidential investigative purposes.”
        d.) TRAFFIC CONTROL VEHICLES… (used for accidents, special events, meter maids, etc… NOT PATROL… and here is the kicker…) of the Washington state patrol MAY BE exempted from SUBSECTION (2)…”

        To summarize what I read… It is unlawful for ANY public officer to operate an unmarked vehicle other than for undercover or investigative purposes… and the only exceptions are Traffic Control Vehicles, motorcycles, or any vehicle that for structural reasons cannot be marked as required.

        And if I may take up just a bit more space…for my own opinion… Considering things like the investigative changes as a result of the OJ Simpson trial…Just because Law Enforcement has done it that way for years… doesn’t make it right. Until someone challenges it and gets the changes to be accurately reflected in “Revised Code of Washington” the law is there especially for Law Enforcement to follow and enforce.

  4. The Police have gone way to far in every direction and it is time that we the people start calling them on it. Everything from needless executions of our citizens to sneaking around in unmarked cars. Why is it that California does not allow unmarked police cars for traffic enforcement? Why is it I routinely see the police driving at speeds in excess of the speed limit and please do not try to tell me it is in the official line of duty. I am a 53 year old white male that was taught that Police are the good guys as a child. I am married to a 45 year old Asian immigrant and I have instructed her not to pull over in an un light un populated area. To call me or the pre-paid legal lawyer while driving. I am afraid of the police. I do not trust the police. What I see is a bunch of jackbooted thug’s playing soldier driving around in their armored Humvee’s pointed loaded 50 caliber “Ma-duce” machine guns at innocent civilians. To serve & protect? I don’t think so…..not anymore.

  5. And of course the officers quoted in the article are WRONG. According to the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division 3… on March 23 1999 in STATE v. RITTS, the court determined that lights alone did NOT constitute proper markings.

    ” The plain language of RCW 46.61.024 expressly requires both a signal and a marked car.   It does not require one or the other.   If either the presence of signaling equipment or the nature of the signal itself renders a police vehicle appropriately marked, the language requiring appropriate identifying marking is superfluous.   The statutory language includes no exception for unmarked undercover vehicles, with or without flashing lights.”

    The court also determined that failing to stop for an unmarked car isn’t unlawful, UNLESS the original order to stop (The flashing lights) were from a properly marked police vehicle.

    1. Mike, I agree with you on your point but…They changed the law in 2003

      This may not be the result the Legislature intended by this statute,
      but it is nonetheless the result required by the present wording of the statute.” State v. Ritts, 94
      Wn. App. 784, 789, 973 P.2d 493 (1999). The legislature amended the statute in 2003 to require
      a police vehicle with lights and sirens instead of a marked vehicle, but did not change the uniform
      requirement. H.B. 1076, 58th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2003).

      1. Not quite. The amendment was to RCW 46.61.024 and not RCW 46.08.065; which was amended in 2015 but did not change the requirements of “markings”

  6. I have the greatest respect for law enforcement, without exception.

    My ONLY concern is if a cop wannabe with flashing red and blue lights on his 10-year-old Buick wants to pull over my lady wife – or me, come to that – for whatever nefarious purpose his squirmy brain has in mind – we are required to stop, right?

    Should we then put on our hazard lights and drive to the nearest police station, as has been suggested?

    Law enforcement officers have historically worn a special* uniform for a reason – to make them stand out from the general population. That is as it should be. What about their cars?

    (Except on Bainbridge, where they wear black rip-stop Nazi Stormtrooper garb to pull over a grandmother in a Prius)!

  7. What, no lawyer types who can answer the questions and concerns people have about unmarked police cars trolling for extra money. This is not about safety and never was. We know they will, but is it illegal for them to use unmarked cars to do routine traffic stops? And when they do, how best to throw a wrench in their works?

    1. Frankly Lazy, 99% of the population who get pulled over by any kind of cop car, marked or not, own up to breaking the law and just deal with it. Its the other 1% that thinks that they can do whatever they want out there on the roads and in Society. So they really don’t care if they get pulled over by an unmarked car. Besides it is pretty obvious what the unmarked cars look like. So its not like they really try to hide. Besides I am pretty sure that some of the local news stations actually did a story on the unmarks right after this story came out and the Law Enforcement Chiefs explained why they can use the unmarks. But that was almost 2 years ago and people just don’t care. Drive Safe

  8. The question remains if public safety is actually enhanced by the use of these sneak vehicles or just the governments revenue.

  9. The WSP should just be honest and state the use for unmarked cars is to instill fear in the public that the WSP can be anywhere and everywhere. Any car could be a police car, and you are being watched constantly while on the roads and can expect to be pulled-over for any violation of the law.

  10. Everyone is missing the main problem with these unmarked ‘traffic enforcement’ vehicles: How do you know that the drivers of these vehicles are actually legitimate police officers? Many of these vehicles also have blacked-out windows and you cannot see the driver! Stopping for these cars when they light you up can be very dangerous, as evidenced by the authenticated reports of people being robbed, raped or worse by criminals in unmarked vehicles posing as the police! Especially if the unmarked police vehicle is displaying civilian license plates as I’ve seen many times. Just this afternoon a saw that a KCS officer had stopped a vehicle in Kingston. His car was unmarked, as well as displaying civilian license plates! The small red and blue lights in his front grille and rear window were the only thing which sort of implied he was a cop. That’s just not good enough, it’s wrong, and totally unsafe for the motorist, especially if being stopped at night. Common sense alone would tell you so! This illegal police practice must stop, for all our safety! Stand up for your rights! Demand fully marked patrol vehicles!

    Also, for those trying to justify these unmarked patrol vehicles by stating ‘don’t break the traffic laws and you won’t have to worry’, you’re foolish beyond words- for several reasons. You really need to wake up!

  11. I want speed laws to be enforced by speed cameras that operate all the time on all roads and ticket every car that is violating the law. Then we don’t have to have discussions like all the above every couple of years. Plus we won’t have to pay the pensions of law enforcement personnel.

  12. He left out the first part of the law which states “t is unlawful for any public officer having charge of any vehicle owned or controlled by any county, city, town, or public body in this state other than the state of Washington and used in public business to operate the same..” the law was NOT written for citizens. It was written to prevent PUBLIC OFFICERS from using unmarked vehicle in ANY PUBLIC OPERATION (aside from SPECIAL investigation).. it’s amazing that our “law enforcement” doesn’t even know the law they “enforce”.

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