Unmarked police cars

If an unmarked police car has blue & red lights flashing in the front window, am I obligated to stop? How do I know it’s not just some whacko?

The traditional advice is that if you have some reason to be suspicious of being pulled over by an unmarked police car, you should either call 911 or proceed to some type of public area (police department, hospital, gas station, etc) and pull over there.

There also appears to be different advice that’s more local, such as turning on your dome light inside your car if it is dark outside, or turning your hazard lights on, to indicate that you acknowledge you are being pulled over but don’t feel safe stopping at that moment.

That’s always been the advice that I’ve heard, but many years ago there was a report on the news (no cite, I’m not even going to try and dig it up, this was like 15+ years ago) of someone that did exactly that…turned on her flashers, slowed down, and drove a mile or two to a gas station and stopped there, the entire path from when she was first ‘pulled over’ to where she finally stopped was all unlit/dark. IIRC, she ended up getting arrested and/or getting tickets for evading the police.

Now, maybe that’s just part of the procedure. They give you the tickets or take you in, but you can just have them overturned in court, I don’t know, but how many people don’t/won’t stop because of stories like that?

That would make sense if the unit was a marked car with roof lights.

An unmarked car with windshield/grill lights should not expect anyone to pull over immediately. Doubly so when it’s dark.
Are unmarked cars even used for traffic enforcement?

They are around here (southern PA, Baltimore MD suburbs areas).

This isn’t a factual response, but I think that many would say the same thing that self-defense advocates would say about personal safety: it is better to be judged by twelve (a jury) than carried by six (pallbearers).

That subject came up recently with my wife and daughter. There are a lot of ghost marked police vehicles around here. I advised them that unless they were absolutely certain it was a police vehicle, to not pull over and stop, but to slow down, turn on flashers, tap brake lights, and drive to a public area such as a gas station. A reasonable police officer will understand this, but if not, OK. We will go to court. If it is truly a police officer, they will be videoing the entire incident and I could use their own tape in my defense. I would rather face court than to have them pull over for some nut job.

The colours the police use for their emergency lights are restricted from use by non-LEO. Doesn’t mean that there aren’t people misusing them, but at least it’s not legal.

One friend of mine had strobe lights in his grill because it was 2002 and he thought it was cool. Meant only for car shows, but I’d always wondered what would have happened if he was caught using them on the street.

Another friend has an LED underlight kit on his Kawasaki ZXR-636, and it can flash through 5 or so colours, including red and blue. He uses it on the street. Great way to get to know your local PD and find out what the inside of a holding cell looks like.

In practical terms, though, if it’s nighttime and you have red and blue lights flashing in your rear view mirror, it’s probably going to be pretty difficult to tell whether the car behind you is marked or unmarked.

And, yes, here in New Jersey, at least, unmarked cars are often used for traffic enforcement.

I’m pretty sure the factual answer to the question is yes, you are obliged to stop for an unmarked police car, even if you don’t know for sure if it’s legit (or are still nervous because of the impersonator you saw on the news… or simply don’t like the police).

The “I don’t know if this guy/situation is legit” line can be mis-applied to countless scenarios (are you really authorized to write me that ticket… is that thing you told me to do really a lawful order… etc) and I don’t think it is really applicable most of the time. In the tiny percentage of cases where it does work there would probably be a lengthy, stressful, time-consuming and expensive legal process to figure if the additional charges you racked up by evading or whatever should be dropped.

You might luck out and get a LEO in a good mood who understands and doesn’t throw the book at you for driving a few extra miles, but I don’t think they’re obligated to let you pull over where and when you feel safe penalty-free.

And yes as mentioned above all you’re going to see in your rearview mirror at night are red and blue flashing lights and blinding flashing headlights; you won’t know it’s an unmarked unit until you get escorted to it’s backseat in cuffs and can see the side of the car. I think the red&blue flashing lights would be considered obvious enough indication that you’re being pulled over by a real cop.

There’s a crapton of Red and Blue LED lights on Amazon
Just a sampling

In 1948, Caryl Chessman was convicted of robbery, kidnapping and rape in 17 separate incidents in Los Angeles, in which he had mounted a red light on his car and used it to pull victims over. He was executed in San Quentin in 1962.

I’ve seen various police departments around here say to drive to a well lit spot and others arrest people for doing just that.

Not sure how you are supposed to know which kind of area you are in when it’s happening

Red or blue underbody lights are generally legal if correctly installed. The actual illuminated source itself cannot be visible, but the light it casts is fine.

YMMV, everything is illegal in New Jersey, etc.

Well sure, there’s all sorts of stuff that you can legally (or illegally) buy, obtain, or make… cop uniforms, badges, you can hire a detailer to paint your car exactly like a real cop car, you can buy the same model cruiser, not to mention the myriad of weapons you can buy online or in stores. Doesn’t mean you can legally use them, especially for impersonating the police. Nor does it make laws and legal procedure null and void just because that judge just might be an escaped mental patient who stole a black robe and snuck into the courtroom.

My point was that when you’re explaining it all in court after the fact you’re bound to be asked why you thought those blue and red flashing lights weren’t a real cop. If all you’ve got is this case you read about on the internet from 1948 when some nutcase killed a bunch of people pretending to be a cop… don’t expect that to help much.

Pretty much everything bad & scary imaginable has been pulled off at least once by someone somewhere at some point in history. That doesn’t mean we (or at least the courts) treat every day to day scenario in life as though it was that once case happening again.

Count up the documented number of times someone has impersonated a cop with lights on a normal looking car (a few hundred?), and divide that by the number of actual stops made by police in real unmarked cars (a few million?), and you’ll get a pretty good idea how the courts will interpret your story.

And of course none of the above has anything to do with whether you actually legally have to pull over for an unmarked police car or not. 99.999% of the time you do, just as you are bound to adhere to thousands of laws you don’t know about but never the less exist and can be enforced. You can get lucky and be let off the hook if you (or your lawyer) explain your actions well enough, but realize it’s very rare that you can expect it with any degree of certainty.

May we have cites for these claims that courts generally punish people who do not immediately pull over for unmarked police cars?

Because I have cites that have police departments advising drivers that if they are suspicious of an unmarked vehicle attempting to pull them over, that the driver should call 911 and proceed to a public area. You seem to be saying that people are generally penalized for following this advice, so I think you should clarify how you come to this conclusion.

Depends on the state. It’s usually illegal in Ohio. (And the car in the example case was actually marked. It just wasn’t marked enough.)

Just the opposite. Around here (SE Wisconsin) judges hate unmarked cars.

On top of that, most agencies have no pursuit policies in place for unmarked cars and some have even gone to no pursuit for marked cars (the rate of people fleeing has skyrocketed, BTW). So it’s tough to get a conviction for fleeing for not pulling over for an unmarked patrol car. If the police aren’t pursing how is it fleeing?

My agency has actually reversed it’s no pursuit policy for marked vehicles. Things had gotten ridiculous during it’s tenure.

In Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught ~Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize Winner