A classic police stop involves sirens sounding and a marked police vehicle in the rearview mirror with red flashing lights. These clear signs indicate to a motorist that a police officer is telling them to pull to the side and stop their car.
But some states permit law enforcement to do their work in unmarked police cars, in order to bring in the element of surprise. While surprise is often accomplished, there can be, and have been, unfortunate consequences of this practice.
Each state has its own rules about unmarked police vehicles and traffic stops. Anyone living in Texas should get an overview of this state's unmarked police car laws.
Marked Police Vehicles in Texas
Regular police vehicles in Texas don't all look the same, but all are easily recognizable as being patrol cars linked to the police department. Each city has its own designs for patrol cars and police cruisers.
Most are black and white, and black bodies with white doors seem the most popular. This is the color design for police cars in Houston, Austin, Fort Worth and Lubbock, for example. Others, like in the Dallas Police Department, have a white bonnet front and roof top as well, while still others are largely white.
Texas Law on Marking Municipal Vehicles
However, some factors are the same and make the Texas police vehicles uniform, to some extent. Under Texas law, all marked police cars must be inscribed with lettering and coloring that identifies the vehicle as a law enforcement vehicle.
Under the Texas Transportation Code, all municipal vehicles must have the name of the municipality and the title of the department to which the vehicle belongs inscribed on the vehicle. This inscription must be done in a color that contrasts sufficiently with the main color to allow citizens to read the inscription at a distance of 100 feet.
So, a police car in the city of San Antonio would have the words "San Antonio Police" written on its side. In fact, this is the most important aspect of a police car: the lettered stickers that say “Sheriff” or “Police” and the name of the county where this vehicle serves.
Benefits of Marked Police Cars
When cop cars bear definitive markings, it makes for easy recognition of law enforcement agency vehicles by Texas residents and visitors alike. That has more than a few benefits. First, the presence of marked police cars or motorcycles on city streets and highways may automatically put a brake on speeding and the commission of other traffic violations.
The law enforcement officer doesn't even need to use their flashing lights; when a marked police car drives down the street, suddenly drivers start following traffic laws and driving below the speed limit.
Also, when a traffic stop is necessary, a driver who sees a marked car behind them signalling with red lights is quite likely to follow instructions. They will generally stop their car and show the officer their driver's license. They will likely exit the car if asked to do so and otherwise voluntarily comply with the law enforcement officer's requests.
Finally, if a law-abiding individual sees a crime or needs assistance, they will be more likely to seek help from an officer in a marked police car than from another person on the street. This can bring help faster when needed.
Unmarked Patrol Vehicles in Texas
But despite Texas laws about requisite markings on municipal vehicles, there are some exceptions. The law permits any county government to exempt itself from this requirement and put unmarked police vehicles on the city streets.
A police car is usually considered unmarked if it does not have fixed, visible flashing lights, a siren that emits a loud signal, or prominent markings that identify it as a police vehicle. The Corpus Christi police department has used unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement since 2017.
Police officers in unmarked cars have the same rights to stop and arrest individuals driving through the state as do officers in traditional cop cars. If someone is breaking traffic laws, an unmarked car can stop them, and the police can issue tickets.
Benefits of Unmarked Police Cars in Texas
The obvious goal of using unmarked police vehicles is to catch aggressive drivers or criminals in acts they would not commit openly if they spotted a marked police unit. While drivers may slow down when seeing a marked law enforcement vehicle, they also tend to speed up when they don't see one.
An aggressive driver, or one under the influence of alcohol or drugs, may drive in a manner that can cause serious injury to others, and an unmarked police car can pull them over.
Downsides of Unmarked Cop Cars
As often happens, the primary advantage to using unmarked law enforcement vehicles is also their main detriment: the fact that a driver cannot tell whether the car contains police officers.
This may help the police deter traffic offenses by catching drivers who believe that no police are around, but it can also result in fear and mistrust. Is the car flashing lights to signal a vehicle to pull over a real police car or someone trying to assault or rob the driver?
And this is, unfortunately, a real possibility. In more than one case, criminals pretending to be undercover police have stopped and robbed drivers. And urban myths about such crimes also loom large on social media. It is little wonder that many states have limited the use of unmarked police cars.
For example, New York once permitted unmarked police cars to make vehicle stops. But the law was revised in 2021 to prohibit routine use of unmarked police vehicles. The new law forbids undercover police officers from stopping, questioning or apprehending drivers for violations of the vehicle code or traffic laws.
No Unmarked Vehicles in California
California, since 1923, has completely outlawed the traffic police from using any vehicle not distinctively marked, that is, in the traditional black and white design.
This law was motivated by a desire to use traffic enforcement designed to augment local revenues through exorbitant fines; this has since been limited to speeding stops by appellate courts. California does not allow police to use any vehicle for any purpose unless:
- It has at least one red flashing light.
- It has a siren.
- Police officer has, and can offer, proof of their identity.
- Driver of the police vehicle must be in uniform.
Texas Laws About Unmarked Police Cars
The legality of unmarked police cars and the authority given to police in those vehicles differs widely by the city, county and state laws in different jurisdictions. In some states, unmarked vehicles are not permitted to patrol alone.
Many Texas counties and cities that have exempted themselves from the rule about unmarked police vehicles have authority to patrol the streets and issue traffic tickets. However, there are several important qualifications.
Any law enforcement officers inside unmarked vehicles are required to wear their normal police uniforms. And, if the driver asks to see the officer's official identity card, it must be immediately produced.
Only Marked Police Cars Can Pursue Vehicles
What happens if a motor vehicle that has been stopped by an unmarked police car refuses to stop or flees after being stopped? In Texas, the unmarked police vehicle does not have the right to pursue it. Only a marked police car is permitted to pursue another vehicle.
Under the Texas Transportation Code, a police officer in pursuit must be in full uniform and in a vehicle marked as an official police vehicle.
Police Stops Require a Reasonable Suspicion
When a Texas city or county is exempted from the marked car rule, their police officers are permitted to patrol city streets in unmarked vehicles. They also have the right, while patrolling in an unmarked vehicle, to stop drivers.
However, they can only do so if they have reason to suspect that the driver has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime or a traffic violation. If the officer does not have probable cause, the driver may refuse to answer any questions or consent to a search of the vehicle.
How to Spot an Unmarked Police Car in Texas
Are there little signs that indicate that a car is an unmarked police car? If it were easy to distinguish these cars, they wouldn't be of much value to the police departments in Texas, so, unfortunately, there are no "smoking guns." However, many unmarked police cars share certain characteristics in Texas:
Is the car American made?
- In Texas, more often than not, unmarked police cars are made in the U.S. Look for Dodge Chargers or Ford SUVs in Texas. Chevrolet Impalas were big in Houston for undercover cars, but are no longer used. Since old police cars are sold at auction, it's possible to mistake regular civilian vehicles for undercover cars.
Is the license plate an exempt plate?
- Texas law allows some government vehicles to be registered for free by granting them an exempt fee status. Unmarked police cars are often registered in this way, so check for the word “EXEMPT” on top of the plate in red or at the bottom in navy blue.
Are the windows fully tinted?
- Full tint on windows is a good way to keep people from peering into a car, and this can be used in an undercover car. It's not a 100 percent certain giveaway, but it's one more sign to check.
Are there grill guards on the car?
- Grill guards or push bumpers minimize damage to vehicles and are often used for law enforcement vehicles because of this. If there is an American-made car with tinted windows and a grill guard on the front, it could be an unmarked cop car.
Does the car have mirror-like objects on the front?
- If there are mirror-like objects on the front of a vehicle's windshield, they may actually be police spotlights, powered by the car's battery. They have a long duration and can be used from inside the car without opening the window.
- Texas Statutes: Texas Transportation Code 721.004
- Texas Statutes: Transportation Code 545.421
- The City of Hempstead Police Department: FAQ
- Caller Times: Council Approves Ordinance Allowing Corpus Christi Police to Patrol in Unmarked Vehicles
- Police Car Website: Texas
- The Newspaper: California Court Weakens Ban on Unmarked Traffic Police
- My Vehicle Talk: Unmarked Car Laws by State
- Find Law: Are Unmarked Police Cars Legal?
- Ecusocmin: Unmarked Police Cars in Texas
- Texas Trial Attorney: How to Spot an Unmarked Cop Car
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.