Marked versus Unmarked Police Cars: When Does It Matter?

Marked versus Unmarked Police Cars: When Does It Matter?

Marked Versus Unmarked Police Car in Indiana: Steer Clear

You might not even know how frequently you encounter an unmarked police car in Indiana; they look so normal—Impalas, Crown Victorias, Chargers, Mustangs, Tauruses, Explorers, and Ford F Series trucks. It is often difficult to distinguish between marked versus unmarked police cars and in other states, too. But they are out there in many states, including Indiana.

Even the most conscientious drivers feel jolts of adrenaline upon seeing the driver next to them get pulled over by an unmarked police car in Indiana. The use of unmarked cop cars may feel unfair, but is using an unmarked police car in Indiana illegal? The short answer is not necessarily, but that does not mean that the police have unfettered power to do what they want from behind the wheel of an unmarked car. The Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys of Keffer Hirschauer LLP explain the limitations and exceptions to law enforcement use of a marked versus unmarked police cars in Indiana.

Unmarked Police Car in Indiana: The Driving Law Behind It

Indiana Code 9-30-2-2 addresses the legality of an unmarked police car in Indiana. The statute has received a lot of criticism since its inception in 1927 and was even the subject of a 2008 graduate research paper, written by a police officer who found fault with what he perceived to be weaknesses in the statute. But the statute remains on the books, which means drivers daily run the risk of coming across an unmarked police car in Indiana.

Subsection (a) of the statute provides that a law enforcement officer is not permitted to arrest or issue a traffic citation to a driver for violating an Indiana law or city ordinance concerning the use of a motor vehicle unless the officer is either:

  • Wearing a distinctive uniform and a badge of authority, or
  • Operating a motor vehicle that is clearly marked as a police vehicle

Subsection (a) does not apply to an officer in an unmarked police vehicle if there is a uniformed officer present at the arrest or if the arrest or traffic citation is for the following offense:

Indiana Code 9-30-2-2 is not a long statutory section, but compliance with it is more complicated than one might think.

Identifying an Unmarked Police Car in Indiana

An unmarked police car is one that lacks the standard visible markings and sounds of a typical police car. Unmarked cars can have various bells and whistles that, upon inspection, give them away—some practice can help a person identify marked versus unmarked police cars. Some of the indicators are more visible than others:

  • Light bars in either the front or back window
  • Recessed flashers in the grille
  • Municipal plates, perhaps with badges
  • Suspicious parking location
  • Scanning equipment in the interior
  • Bulbar or push bumper
  • Bars between the front and back seats
  • Tinted windows
  • Roof or trunk antennae
  • Lack of hubcaps
  • Searchlight on the driver’s side

Different states handle the use of unmarked police cars differently. Some states impose restrictions such as limiting their use to daylight hours or requiring them to be marked in a distinctive manner. Other states place very few restrictions on their use. Drivers must use caution when driving from state to state to know their rights when stopped by the police.

Unmarked Police Cars: The Debate

There can be little doubt that the Indiana General Assembly had the safety of the motoring public in mind in promulgating Indiana Code 9-30-2-2. The justifications given for the unmarked police cars, in Indiana and elsewhere, are wide-ranging:

  • To monitor drivers in their natural habitat, without the influence of visible law enforcement nearby
  • To encourage drivers to proceed in accordance with posted speed limits, knowing they may be monitored by a strategically placed unmarked police car in Indiana
  • To change the behavior of drivers for the better
  • To catch texting drivers
  • To look for vehicles following too closely or changing lanes in an unsafe manner
  • To address the issue that visible patrols have been ineffective to handle

Conversely, there is criticism of the use of an unmarked police car in Indiana—also referred to as a stealth car, ghost car, incognito car, or undercover car:

  • Fear of impersonators and criminals posing as law enforcement for unlawful purposes—there are many urban legends about this, but there are also actual accounts of this happening, too
  • Fundamental feeling of unfairness at what is seen as a covert and deceptive use of an unmarked police car in Indiana
  • Blind obedience to authority, such as pulling over for any set of flashing lights, without verification of affiliation with law enforcement

Conflicts of opinion on the value of unmarked police cars arise in the public forum frequently—it is a nationwide topic of discussion—but it is really the statute at issue when a driver is stopped by the police.

Marked Versus Unmarked Police Cars: When Does it Matter?

Indiana Code 9-30-2-2 provides the authority for unmarked cop cars; however, it is usually Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys who ferret out the controversial parts of the law that are not so obvious from a casual reading of the law. These lawyers identify issues like:

The fact that unmarked police cars are missing the standard markings that identify them as valid, law enforcement vehicles means that communicating with officers in these circumstances is often subject to considerable scrutiny. Even the shortest of interactions can have legal implications, so drivers need to pay attention to the details:

  • The point at which lights or sirens were activated on the undercover vehicle
  • The identifying marks of authority on the officer—a badge, a form of identification, clothing that identifies affiliation with law enforcement
  • Whether the driver of a vehicle stopped voluntarily or if it was the officer who stopped the vehicle
  • The presence or absence of other police officers, especially uniformed ones
  • The location of the unmarked police car

The interaction with an officer and even attire of the officer in an unmarked police car is important, too. Indicia of authority can include a variety of things:

  • The attire that provides indicia of authority, such as the word “Sheriff” on a sweatshirt or the words “law enforcement” and a star on the sweatshirt, as in Koers v. Indiana (Ind. Ct. App. 2011)
  • The presence of a badge, gun, or radio on the officer’s person, such as on a belt
  • The content of the discussion between an officer and the driver while waiting for a uniformed officer, an issue addressed in Williamson v. Indiana (Ind. Ct. App. 2006)
  • The feeling that an individual is not free to leave

Details of the interaction are important because they may affect the legality of the officer’s action. The Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys at Keffer Hirschauer LLP have followed the legislative history of this controversial statute and can help identify and argue if you are stopped by the police whether there was an arrest or detention, whether the arrest or detention was lawful, and whether any evidence collected should be suppressed.

Our Indianapolis Criminal Defenses Attorneys Can Guide You

If you encounter an unmarked car, regardless of jurisdiction, the standard advice is for you to call the authorities and/or move to a well-lit and populated area or even to a police station to be sure you are dealing with an authorized officer. As always, follow the Safe Driving Tips of the Indiana Department of Transportation and all relevant laws each and every time you get into a vehicle.

If, however, your situation is more complicated than that and your interactions result in what could constitute a detention or arrest for a traffic-related violation or other violation, seek the help of experienced traffic citation counsel right away. Even the smallest of traffic infractions can result in huge costs and negative effects on your license, and the stakes are even higher for more serious violations.

When you have encountered an unmarked police car in Indiana, the legal road can be quite difficult to follow without the help of Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys who can decide whether your rights may have been violated and, if so, what to do about it. At Keffer Hirschauer LLP, our criminal defense and traffic citation attorneys are experienced in covering it all.

To be sure that the police you encounter in an unmarked police car in Indiana have fully complied with Indiana Code 9-30-2-2, contact the Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys at Keffer Hirschauer LLP today for a free consultation. We can be reached at (317) 202-1163 or through our online contact form.

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