Most drivers have had the experience of seeing a police vehicle behind them on the freeway and then checking their speedometer to make sure they are not driving too fast. This is one way that marked police cars, by their very presence, inhibit lawbreakers and encourage people to abide by the rules.
But what about unmarked police cars? Although not legal in every state, they are legal in many, including New York. Exactly what purpose are they intended to serve?
Marked Police Cars in the State of New York
Marked police cars are the ones the public recognizes. Each state's patrol cars have their own "look," but all have lights, sirens and carry uniformed law enforcement officers. But few states restrict themselves in terms of patrol vehicle make and model.
New York police department cars, for example, have an all-white body with two blue stripes along each side. "New York Police" is printed above the front grill, and the word "police" is printed above the front doors.
The NYPD patch is displayed on either side of the car, on or near the front doors. This motto is printed on the back doors: "Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect." The marked cars include different vehicle brands, such as Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.
Unmarked Police Cars in New York
Appearance counts when it comes to the difference between a marked and an unmarked police car. New York state law provides that a police car is considered unmarked if it lacks:
- Fixed, visible flashing lights.
- Siren that emits a loud signal.
- Prominent markings (like stripes) that identify it as a police vehicle.
In short, an unmarked New York police car will not be easily recognizable as a police car. It will not be white with blue stripes, and it will not bear the lettering that identifies it as a police car. In fact, it can be any color, any brand of car, and will generally look like the average car passing on the street.
Advantages of Marked Police Cars
Marked police cars are effective in deterring crime because when they appear on the highway or in a neighborhood, those conducting illegal business or thinking of doing so will likely be deterred. Speeders will hit their brakes, and thieves will walk away whistling, or simply buy a pack of cigarettes at the store they were actually planning to rob.
Another advantage of marked police cars is that law-abiding citizens who witness a crime or who might feel threatened by criminal behavior in the neighborhood can flag down a vehicle to report the circumstances. A marked police car is a welcome sight when a motorist breaks down on a dark road at night and wants to flag down trustworthy assistance.
And anyone who sees a marked police vehicle with the light flashing behind them on a highway gets the signal to pull over to the side and stop. Sometimes the police officer will stop behind the motor vehicle and walk over to the window; in other cases, they will speed off in quest of someone else.
Advantages of Unmarked Police Cars
Unmarked police cars, like undercover police officers, work better in situations when stealth is called for. Since lawbreakers usually do not stop their illegal behavior when unmarked cars are in the vicinity, they are more likely to be caught in the act – whether they are speeding, texting while driving, or engaging in even more serious crimes, like drug dealing.
Unmarked police cars may not deter crimes, but officers are more likely to issue more tickets and locate and arrest more criminals than the average officer in a marked car. Unmarked cars are particularly efficient to combat drug sales and other gang activity.
This is why some areas, like Washington D.C., limit the activities of unmarked police cars to undercover investigations or confidential duties. Some states, like West Virginia, make them illegal altogether, but in others, like New Hampshire, it is the norm for unmarked cars to pull vehicles over for traffic violations.
Problems With Unmarked Police Cars
While it is probably true that criminals and lawbreakers would prefer states to outlaw unmarked police cars, this is not the type of problem that will move politicians to act. Whether a criminal likes or doesn't like police policy in the state it is usually not a matter for general concern.
On the other hand, law-abiding citizens also have issues with unmarked cars. The main issue with these "undercover" vehicles is one of safety. It is quite difficult for a criminal to obtain a marked police car or paint a private vehicle to mimic one. That means that if a driver in New York sees a white car with blue stripes and "police" written on the doors, they can be pretty sure it is a genuine police car.
But since unmarked cars look like ordinary vehicles, it is much easier for someone to attach lights to their vehicle and pretend to be an undercover police officer. They could stop cars on lonely stretches of roads to rob or assault the driver and passengers when they stop in response to what they think is a police stop.
New York Laws About Unmarked Police Cars
In New York, like many other states, unmarked police cars were regularly used for many years to conduct regular traffic and speed stops of drivers for traffic violations like speeding. The state used unmarked state police SUVs, for example, to catch texting drivers.
However, the law in New York was changed in 2021 to prohibit the routine use of unmarked police vehicles and to prevent undercover police officers to stop, question or apprehend drivers for violations of the vehicle code or traffic laws.
Unmarked Cars No Longer Used for Traffic Enforcement
It was amended for safety purposes. Several cases of criminals posing as policemen in unmarked cars came to light, and New York drivers became afraid of stopping when required to do so by officers in unmarked cars.
To combat this situation, New York lawmakers decided to change the role of unmarked police cars to prevent their use in routine traffic stops and everyday traffic violations. The intent was to reduce or eliminate the victimization of citizens by police impersonators.
NY Unmarked Cars and Non-traffic Offenses
The prohibition applies only to ordinary vehicle code violations, like texting while driving, speeding or failure to use a seat belt. Unmarked police cars in New York state are still permitted to stop drivers whom they suspect committed criminal (penal) law violations.
What are examples of penal law violations that would justify a traffic stop by an unmarked police car in New York? If the police suspect a driver of having an outstanding arrest warrant, or when the driver's behavior presents a clear threat to public safety, unmarked cars can be used to stop the car.
Unmarked police cars may also be used in traffic surveillance operations, such as speed traps, as long as the vehicle that actually pulls over the offending driver is a marked police car. They can also be used for undercover criminal investigations.
- FindLaw: Are Unmarked Police Cars Legal?
- NYT: New Color Scheme, Mostly White, to Reduce the Cost of Painting Police Cars
- My Vehicle Talk: Unmarked Police Car Laws by State: [2022 Update]
- Law Enforcement Today: Marked and Unmarked Law Enforcement Vehicles
- Morotbiscuit: Here Are All the States That Allow Unmarked Police Cars to Pull You Over
- Justia: 9 NY Comp Codes Rules and Regs § 5.35
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.