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OK, you’ve been pulled over by an unmarked police car for speeding in your Dodge Charger or BMW 3 Series, and you’re mad. Well, it happens, and police departments use them more often than you might think. So, why do cops employ official police cars without markings, and how do they use them within the parameters of the law? 

Can an unmarked police car stop you?

Depending on where you live, an unmarked police car, or unmark, might not have the authorization to perform a traffic stop. For instance, uniformed police officers in Tennessee and Nevada can pull offending vehicles over, not unlike distinctively-marked department vehicles.

A Ford Crown Victoria unmarked police car moves to the scene of a crime or broken law.
Ford Crown Victoria │Christopher Evans, MediaNews Group via Boston Herald via Getty Images

However, in other states, like Oklahoma and New Mexico, officers can use unmarked police cars to enforce laws and perform routine traffic control measures, per Motor and Wheels. For a complete list, check out this list of laws by state.  

What can unmarked police cars do?

In states where police are authorized to perform traffic stops using unmarked vehicles, the subtle department vehicles can serve similarly to standard units. However, in other states, an unmarked police vehicle will radio a distinctively-marked unit to stop or pursue a fleeing vehicle rather than participate.

In many states, like Indiana, a police vehicle without department or jurisdictional marking cannot be used for an arrest unless the officer wears a uniform with a badge. Moreover, Maryland requires official cars, even those without markings, to use lights and sirens to perform traffic stops. 

An unmarked Audi in Belgium │Ben Pruchnie via Getty Images

In some cases, criminals will use fake police vehicles to pull motorists over and commit crimes like robbery. For instance, Fox 8 reports that Cleveland-area criminals used faux unmarked department vehicles like a Dodge Durango. Criminals would then pull over motorists, approach the vehicles, and rob the occupants. If you suspect that an unmarked car pulling you over isn’t official, call 911 and report the instance.   

Why do departments operate unmarked police cars?

Police departments operate unmarked police cars to enforce laws without the conspicuousness of a distinctively-marked unit. However, the Department of Justice says departments should “consider posting signs advising motorists that the police patrol with unmarked cars” to avoid causing concern or mistrust. In other cases, police departments assign an unmark to a detective for official use. 

In a more clandestine case, undercover officers and federal agents will use a vehicle that doesn’t fit any standard specifications. For instance, an officer may use a car like a Ford Mustang to blend into their surroundings and alleviate suspicion. 

How do you know if it’s an unmarked police car?

Unmarked cars in an official role often brandish much of the same exterior kit as fully-liveried units. Many unmarked Ford Crown Victorias, Dodge Chargers, or Ford Police Interceptor Utility models may have standard exterior equipment. For instance, models may have spotlights, large radio antennae, and official license plates.  

Do other countries use unmarked police cars?

The United States isn’t the only country to employ marking-free police vehicles for specific roles. For instance, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany utilize unmarked vehicles for police operations.

In the U.K., British police officers can use unmarked vehicles for operations requiring subtlety. Moreover, in Germany, the highway patrol, or Autobahnpolizei, uses unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement.


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