Traffic Q&A: Unmarked car use for traffic control legal, police say

Q: Can local police use unmarked cars for traffic enforcement?

— Eric P., Bonney Lake

A: Bonney Lake mayor Neil Johnson Jr. tells us his office has been contacted about this by citizens concerned with safety issues involved in making it routine for citizens to be pulled over by a vehicle other than an officially marked squad car. This has been a controversial issue elsewhere in the state, perhaps starting when a Grant County activist posted a video in 2014 of his interaction after pulling over a cop in an unmarked car.

The police and politicians that we and other Washington journalists consulted say it’s legal and widely practiced under broad cover given by the state law that mandates when police cars have to be marked.

That law, RCW 46.80.065, allows for unmarked cars by police “under public authority for special undercover or confidential investigative purposes” or for some traffic control vehicles of the Washington State Patrol. Elsewhere in the same statute, it also allows the same by “local governmental agencies for the same purposes and under the same circumstances as permitted for state agencies.”

Here’s how officials read it:

Johnson, the Bonney Lake mayor, says his city has authorized three unmarked cars for duties ranging from SWAT tasks to DUI and other traffic offenses, all the way down to seatbelt enforcement. He said the part of the statute about “special undercover or confidential investigative purposes” provides legal cover for the practice.

“We do not think the statute prohibits officers driving unmarked police vehicles from performing traffic control or making traffic stops when traffic infractions or crimes are committed in their presence,” he wrote in an email. “A concern that is often raised about use of unmarked police vehicles for traffic stops is the possibility of police impersonators making phony traffic stops. Police impersonation is a very serious crime and we do not take this concern lightly. However, Bonney Lake officers performing traffic stops are in uniform and carry identification.”

Tacoma also uses unmarked police cars for traffic enforcement. A department representative said Tacoma police take their authorization to do it via approval given by the State Patrol.

“Our policy is that we can make traffic stops using the lights and sirens,” Tacoma Police Department spokeswoman Loretta Cool wrote in an email. “If the unmarked car is involved in a pursuit, as soon as possible a marked unit will take over and the unmarked will exit the pursuit. All of the traffic control done by unmarked vehicles is either in emergent situations or at the approval of a division commander.”

She added that all Tacoma police officers doing regular traffic duty will be wearing uniforms, although a detective in civilian attire who sees a traffic infraction in an unmarked on the way to work is also authorized to make a traffic stop. The detective would show his badge “on contact with the driver,” she wrote

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office sometimes uses unmarked cars with concealed lights to make traffic stops, but not routinely, spokesman Ed Troyer said.

“We like visibility,” he wrote in an email.

Finally, we checked with state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, a former judge who now chairs the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee. He declined to give a legal review of agencies’ reading of the statute. He did say the practice is widespread and hasn’t been the subject of any court cases that came to mind.

“It’s certainly been the policy over here, with the city of Spokane and certainly the sheriff here,” Padden said.

So that’s how the authorities regard the subject. There is also a law on the books against impersonation of a police officer, so officials have anticipated the potential for wrongdoing that some have cited. Officials say to dial 911 if you’re concerned an unmarked car making a traffic stop isn’t authentic.