on February 18, 2013
by Brandon R. Cogswell

The Truth Behind the Unmarked Cop Car

Cruising Facebook the other day, maxing out my productivity, I came across a friend’s post sharing another post about unmarked vehicles.  I get a little tired of seeing these “everyone should repost this” type of posts all the time, but this one got my attention because it has to do with getting pulled over (criminal stuff usually gets my attention).  The post was a story about a woman approached by an unmarked police car with a light on the roof while she was driving.  Instead of pulling over, she called 112 on her cell phone reached police dispatch and said she wasn’t going to pull over on the side of the road.  Long story short, the dispatcher . . . dispatched . . . law enforcement and they arrested the guy in the unmarked, fake, cruiser who, of course, turned out to be a criminal.  I don’t know whether dialing 112 on your cell phone will direct you to law enforcement but you can easily get in touch with them if you need to by dialing 911 or the non-emergency number in your area.

The question I had is whether and when law enforcement is permitted to use unmarked vehicles to initiate traffic stops. The Ohio Revised Code has an answer:

 Any motor vehicle used by a member of the state highway patrol or by any other peace officer, while said officer is on duty for the exclusive or main purpose of enforcing the motor vehicle or traffic laws of this state, provided the offense is punishable as a misdemeanor, shall be marked in some distinctive manner or color and shall be equipped with, but need not necessarily have in operation at all times, at least one flashing, oscillating, or rotating colored light mounted outside on top of the vehicle. The superintendent of the state highway patrol shall specify what constitutes such a distinctive marking or color for the state highway patrol.

 O.R.C. 4549.13.

So, what does it mean to require clearly marked cars and to limit the law to officers on duty for the main purpose of enforcing traffic?  The markings of a police car must reasonably distinguish it from other vehicles on the highways and roads.[1]  This does not mean Ohio prohibits unmarked police cars.  Just that cars must be marked in certain circumstances.  In the Cleveland area, officers in an unmarked car lawfully stopped a vehicle after they observed a driver impeding traffic, exceeding the speed limit and running a stop sign. [2]  Why was the stop lawful?  Other than the extensive criminal conduct the officers observed which would have given them reasonable suspicion to stop the car, the court held that the officers were not on duty for the main purpose of enforcing traffic laws so there was no requirement that the car have the markings of a typical police cruiser.  In addition, the purpose of R.C. 4549.13 is to prevent speed traps and to prevent the situation where a driver must debate whether to stop for an unmarked car, containing an unknown person.

Can you just not pull over if an unmarked vehicle has flashing lights and is behind you?  No.  If you continue to drive and do nothing, bigger problems could come your way, like a charge for fleeing from the police.  If, for example, you are speeding on the highway and you are caught, you’re going to be pulled over by a marked vehicle.  A cop that pulls you over for speeding is on duty for the main purpose of enforcing traffic laws.  But if a cop sees you breaking a law, traffic or otherwise, he/she is going to pull you over to investigate.

[1] City of Cleveland v. Martinez, 2003 Ohio 7046.

[2] State v. Taylor, 2011 Ohio 1554

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