Are Police Cars Always Marked? (Rules Per State – with Examples!)

Police car rules vary from state to state.

Although no particular state law explicitly mandates police cars to be marked, some state rules require those police cars that are used primarily for traffic enforcement to be distinctly marked.

Obviously, no one else would do a complete 50 states’ survey for you, so you’re at the right blog!

Simply put, unmarked police vehicles are considered so when there’s no loud siren for audible signaling, no fixed and visible flashing signal lights, and/or no conspicuous vehicle markings for easy vehicle identification.

Unmarked vehicles for police work are helpful in lowering the profile of officers on duty. Making it easier for them to do undercover work or get close to people and situations without tipping off and/or spooking offenders with markings.

Roof light bars typically that give away their presence or identity from a distance.

Here are a few things you’ll find in this article (click to jump to relevant sections);

Table of Contents

Let’s begin!

Are Unmarked Police Cars Legal?

Whether or not unmarked police cars are legal depends on several factors.

The most obvious being; time of the day, the use of the unmarked police vehicle, and, since there are no federal requirements regarding marked and unmarked police cars, the applicable state.

Let’s x-ray the police car rules of all 50 states in the United States of America to get a complete answer.

Marked And Unmarked Police Car Rules For All 50 States Of The U.S.

This section contains police car rules on the following states.

States with similar rules are paired together for ease.

California, Idaho, South Carolina, West Virginia, & Oklahoma State Laws On Police Cars

California state, Idaho State, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Oklahoma state traffic rules prohibit traffic police from using any vehicle, for official or routine traffic control use, that is not distinctively marked.

Although, Idaho state police department is currently proposing a change to the Idaho traffic code.

A combination of the following police car rules applies to these states;

  • (a) must have at least one flashing red light;
  • (b) must have a siren;
  • (c) the signaling car must give away the police officer’s identity;
  • and (d) the driving officer must be wearing a uniform. 

With these, it should be obvious enough that the car is a police vehicle.

You may also like to read our article which explains about How Bullet-Proof are Police Cars?

Washington DC, New Mexico, & Montana State Laws On Police Cars

In Washington DC, New Mexico, and Montana, only officers designated for confidential or undercover investigative duties are allowed the privilege of driving unmarked police cars.

Other than these, the usage of unmarked police vehicles by police officers is illegal. Thus, you can’t be pulled over by unmarked vehicles for petty offenses in these states.

In New Mexico, an undercover license is issued for such undercover operations in unmarked vehicles.

Illinois & Maine State Laws On Police Cars

Illinois state limits police car pursuit to two police vehicles, after which no vehicle, whether marked or unmarked can join unless such pursuit is coordinated by a supervisor. 

Since in this state, motorcycles qualify as unmarked police vehicles, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board states thus; “a police officer in a motorcycle may initiate pursuit but will relinquish Primary Unit status immediately upon the participation of a marked police car’’.

This provision also applies to officers in semi-marked cars. 

Both marked and unmarked police cars are required by Illinois law to have emergency lights on during a high-speed situation.

Maine state laws are similar to police car rules in Illinois, as unmarked vehicles are allowed by Maine law for patrol use, but prohibited from use in continuous pursuit.

New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, & New Jersey State Laws On Police Cars

The New York state and Pennsylvania state laws allow unmarked police vehicles to be for traffic surveillance operations such as speed traps, but mandates vehicle pull-overs to be made only by marked police vehicles. 

  • Generally, for the states mentioned in the subheading, unmarked police cars can stop you for routine motor vehicle offenses.
  • I.e. a vehicle or registration violation and speeding, but are allowed to pull-over vehicles for suspicions on penal law violations.
  • I.e. where the driver’s behavior threatens public safety or where there’s an outstanding arrest warrant.

Pennsylvania further requires officers in unmarked vehicles to carry identification and display it upon request, except where the officer’s safety would be in jeopardy. 

More so, police uniform must be worn by officers during patrol duty in unmarked vehicles, and where vehicle stops are involved, officers must choose the safest location possible.

They must also wear clothing bearing the specific name of their law enforcement agency or task force. 

Finally, in order to make a vehicle pursuit, Pennsylvania mandates officers in an unmarked vehicle to have audible and visual signals and must relinquish the lead of the pursuit to marked vehicles, once available.

Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, & Rhode Island State Laws On Police Cars

Unmarked police vehicles are allowed for patrol use in Texas, and to pull vehicles over.

However, there must be a cogent reason by the police officer, suspecting the driver of having committed, committing, or about to commit a crime or a traffic violation. 

Texas officers in unmarked vehicles who pull vehicles over, must either be in police uniform or present a police identification card or badge, if not in uniform.

Unmarked police vehicles are also prohibited from pursuit by the Texas Transportation Code in cases where the driver refused to stop or attempted to flee. A marked police unit must be called out to initiate the pursuit.

Similar to Texas state law, unmarked vehicles are prohibited in Louisiana, Virginia, and Rhode Island from traffic enforcement use unless the officer is wearing an official uniform.

Virginia state laws also require that unmarked vehicles be equipped with emergency lights and sirens for use in stopping traffic violators.

Iowa State Laws On Police Cars

In Iowa, all law enforcement officers have legal powers to make an arrest anywhere in the state, because Iowa law enforcement officers are State-Certified Officers.

Although the Iowa State Patrol allows the use of unmarked patrol vehicles, the state is currently gearing toward marked vehicles.

North Carolina State Laws On Police Cars

North Carolina state law allows police car chase with unmarked vehicles in certain circumstances where it may be more effective, such as chasing drunk drivers.

However, the state mandates that 83% of highway patrol vehicles be fully marked with sirens and lights.

Tennessee, Colorado, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Utah, Alabama, South Dakota, & Massachusetts State Laws On Police Cars

In these states, police officers can use both marked and unmarked vehicles, and they have the authority to pull drivers over where necessary.

However, in Missouri, a red flashing light and siren is required.

In Delaware, although unmarked cars are still assigned to traffic units, most unmarked cars are used by detectives who are usually never on traffic duty. 

Tennessee also allows the use of undercover cars, and there are no limitations to the use of unmarked cars for other law enforcement purposes in Tennessee. 

Hawaii Revised Statutes further allows unmarked vehicles of any color to enforce traffic laws. Including the use of officers’ personal vehicles, which do not need any markings, except for distinctive blue emergency lights mounted on the roof when necessary.

Georgia State Laws On Police Cars

In Georgia, it is common for uniformed officers in other units such as; crime suppression unit, gang unit, investigations, etc. to use unmarked cars for uses outside their primary duty such as traffic, issuing citations, and other law enforcement purposes. 

This is because Georgia law stipulates that the use of unmarked vehicles must not be solely and full-time for traffic stops, patrol, etc.

Indiana State Laws On Police Cars

The Indiana state law on unmarked cars is somewhat two-sided. While law enforcement officers are allowed to use unmarked cars as they see fit, they may not arrest an individual (or issue a traffic citation) unless the officer is either;

(1) wearing a distinctive uniform and a badge of authority, or (2) operating a clearly marked police vehicle”. 

Indiana does not allow a subtle or ambiguous identification of police cars or officers. The officer and/or his vehicle must; “clearly show the officer or the officer’s vehicle to casual observations to be an officer or a police vehicle.” 

Maryland State Laws On Police Cars

Maryland State laws allow police officers in unmarked cars to file charges, and while unmarked cars are allowed, a driver should not pull over unless the car has sirens and emergency lights on.

Minnesota & Kansas State Laws On Police Cars

In Minnesota, all unmarked squads are legally authorized by statute and the Commissioner of Public Safety.

The Minnesota State Patrol allows unmarked cars to patrol highways and area roads primarily for road patrol, although these unmarked patrol cars are required to have a door shield (MSP decal). 

Unmarked patrol units that are not required to have a decal include:

  • Vehicle crime unit,
  • district investigators,
  • administration supervisors,
  • State Capitol area troopers,
  • use of which does not primarily include road patrol, but includes traffic stops and emergency response, where necessary. Sirens and emergency lights are required nonetheless. 

The same regulation applies to Kansas.

Mississippi & Vermont State Laws On Police Cars

The Mississippi commissioner of public safety authorized the rules of the road, permitting unmarked police cars for patrol.

The same regulations apply in Vermont, and both states have precautions for drivers that are pulled over by unmarked patrol vehicles.

Nevada State Laws On Police Cars

In Nevada, a few unmarked cars are outfitted for traffic enforcement only, however, officers in unmarked vehicles must be wearing a uniform, so that their official identity is clear.

Drivers in Nevada also have the right to demand reason from officers who are not wearing uniforms.

Michigan State Laws On Police Cars

The Michigan State Police runs a campaign known as “Operation Ghostrider,” allowing law enforcement agencies to utilize unmarked cars to catch distracted drivers on highways across the state. 

Once the trooper catches a driver in violation of the law, such a trooper is required to notify a marked trooper to pull the offender over.

This way, unmarked trooper’s identity will remain hidden.

Oregon State Laws On Police Cars

The general law in Oregon requires that state-owned cars be visibly marked, except for the purposes of an undercover investigation, including traffic patrols (upon request only).

Additionally, the state authorizes the issue of standard-issue license plates, rather than the ones typically issued, to government vehicles.

Nebraska & Alaska State Laws On Police Cars

As a general rule, law enforcement officers in Nebraska and Alaska must use marked patrol vehicles for routine traffic stops.

However, in emergency circumstances, officers in unmarked vehicles may pull a driver over. Although, the better practice (especially in Nebraska) would be to radio in for the assistance of a marked vehicle.

New Hampshire State Laws On Police Cars

In New Hampshire, local and state police cars are now completely metamorphosing into black unmarked police cars, with no markings, no signage, and no signaling.

The practice of police lights on the roof/top of patrol cars continues to decline, as new police cars have only hidden lights. 

Even though there are the more ‘all-black’ unmarked city, town, and state police cars, there are still some towns running the black and white patrol cars with door markings of the town symbol and the name of the town.

Ohio State Laws On Police Cars

Ohio state laws on marked vehicles depend on the department, as many police departments use both marked and unmarked police vehicles.

However, an officer whose primary duty is to enforce traffic laws must do so in a marked patrol vehicle.

For Ohio, even though unmarked cars are generally not allowed for traffic use, yet, it is not unlawful for the police in an unmarked car to stop a driver.

North Dakota & Kentucky State Laws On Police Cars

In North Dakota and Kentucky, unmarked vehicles are legal, but when giving adequate warning, an officer must use a siren or air horn, and/or flashing emergency lights.

Kentucky provides that the emergency lights be in operation at all times during a stop.

North Dakota includes additional regulations stating the colors of lights that must be flashed. Red lights or a combination of red and white lights, which should be visible under normal atmospheric conditions for at least five hundred feet or 152.4 meters. 

Wyoming & Wisconsin State Laws On Police Cars

For Wyoming and Wisconsin, unmarked vehicles should be equipped with red and blue lights.

For Wisconsin, a police vehicle that displays both red and blue lights doesn’t amount to a marked police vehicle. And in the state of Wyoming, unmarked cars may not conduct traffic stops unless in emergencies or extenuating circumstances. 

Most of the regulations above mirror some of the reasons for the use of unmarked vehicles, but generally…

Why Do Cops Drive Unmarked Cars?

Police officers use unmarked police cars for a variety of traffic law enforcement purposes.

A few of them include the promotion of traffic safety and preventing traffic violations by road users, i.e. speeding. Unmarked cars also pose a valuable resource in stopping suspected penal law violators and/or drivers and other road users with behaviors that threaten public safety.

Some of the common uses of unmarked vehicles differ per state.

For instance, unmarked vehicles are extensively used for enforcing “road rage” by the Washington State Patrol. While in New York, unmarked police vehicles are useful and effective in catching drivers who text while driving.

Do You Have To Pull Over For An Unmarked Police Car?

Here’s a tough one. 

You are obligated to pull over and stop for marked or unmarked police vehicles, as you should for any other emergency vehicle, but for several safety concerns, state departments usually advise that drivers pull up to populated and/or highly illuminated areas.

Tragically, the use of unmarked vehicles for official police duty i.e. traffic stops has unintentionally unleashed an opportunity for police officer impersonation.

Thus, the support for marked vehicles over unmarked vehicles have taken the center stage in many states, specifically for traffic stops.

Now, imagine an unmarked police vehicle traveling behind you and flashing at you to slow down, pull over and stop.

What do you do in that situation?

Thankfully, in most cases, an unmarked police vehicle must contain a uniformed officer, or a non-uniformed officer with a badge or some sort of ‘officer’ identifier, before making any traffic stop.

If you’re beckoned to stop by an unmarked car, and you’re uncertain about the identity of the unmarked vehicle driver, do not pull over. Find the nearest well-lit environment or a public place i.e. a police station, gas station, or grocery store before pulling over. 

Don’t worry about upsetting the officer, they wouldn’t mind. And, provided you’re not speeding or attempting to abscond, a light signal of acknowledgment to the officer indicating your action, or a simple explanation would do as soon as you stop.

When you do pull over, ensure that your vehicle doors remain locked until you have diligently ascertained that it’s a real police officer. Still unsure, immediately dial 911.

But, let me try to make it easier for you…

5 Ways To Spot An Unmarked Police Car

There are important restrictions on unmarked vehicle usage, and depending on the state, police officers who use unmarked vehicles must follow some specific rules.

The rules that apply differ from other police vehicle rules, at city and state levels, such as using the unmarked police vehicle during daylight hours only (as per Iowa State).

Ohio State, on the other hand, requires that some form of distinct marking should be present in all unmarked police vehicles, along with a rotating or flashing colored light.

So how do you spot an unmarked police car? 

Is it suspiciously parked on the side of the road?
Can you see weird license-scanning equipment on the front or back seats? Does the license plate seem off or irregular?
Does it have something that looks a bit out of the ordinary?

Here are a few ways;

1. Spot/Searchlight

One distinctive feature of an unmarked police car is an additional large, round light located on the exterior, called a search or spotlight. It usually sits in front of the side mirror on the driver’s seat, to help the officer’s sight during traffic stop night shifts.

A very common giveaway is the Ford Crown Victoria, which is usually used as a police interceptor.

2. Built-in Light Bars in the Grille and/or Windows

In unmarked police cars, there would ideally be light bars built into the front grille and/or in the front or back window.

In some unmarked vehicles, you could find lights on top of the dashboard. Some of these internal lights are hard to spot, especially in heavily tinted cars, unless they’re flashing, so it may be too late by then.

3. Neutral vehicle colors

Most of the time, police cars are stealth-colored. An unmarked police vehicle would most likely be white, black, or grey.

But, blue, red, or other bright colors are also not unusual.

4. Security Bars Between the Front and Rear Seats

Unmarked police vehicles also pick up citizens, and security cannot be overemphasized.

If you’re actively looking and there’s little or no tint, these security bars can be easily spotted.

5. Heavily Tinted Windows

The idea of “unmarked” police vehicles is to enjoy anonymity in catching unsuspecting criminals.

But, some departments can be really excessive with window tinting, and when coupled with other identifiers, it makes them really easy to spot.

A good example would be a heavily tinted American Sedan.

car isolated on white – black paint, tinted glass – left side view – 3d rendering

Any of these signs could make such a car an unmarked police car. But, what about license plates? 

Do Unmarked Police Cars Have Government Plates?

Most police departments use municipal license plates on their unmarked cars. These State-issued license plates usually have “Municipal” written at the bottom, and the plates begin with pre-determined digits, so they would really be easy to spot.

Some others have odd designs or are composed of numbers only, with “official” written at the bottom.

However, depending on the state, especially ones where police officers are allowed to use their POV’s (civilian cars and plates), these identifiers may not apply.

Basically, identifying unmarked police vehicles, especially in traffic stops, require that you use your judgment.

Now, to another frequently asked question…

Can Cops Use Their Own Cars?

Well, of course, they can. Cops are people too, and they need their own cars to go for groceries, grab a beer, or go fishing.

But, if your question is whether or not they can use their personal cars for official duties, then, that’s basically a department issue.

First, it’s important to take a look at the particular state’s vehicle codebook and find the appropriate section. Apart from strictly regulated civilian or volunteer vehicles, such sections basically allow specific departments to decide the extent of POV usage.

Second, departments like the special task force, tactical unit, or specialized unit might allow POVs with special conditions like lights, allowing such officer to respond in a moment’s notice of an emergency.

Whereas, in some other departments, emergency lights and/or sirens are specifically forbidden in POVs by department policy.

However, some departments run a subsidy program, which includes a monthly vehicle use stipend, allowing certain deputies, i.e. admin or detectives, to buy and use personal vehicles for duty. Emergency equipment is usually installed in the vehicle by the department in case of any such emergency situations.

Obviously, the department will cover vehicles for on-duty damages under the department’s insurance policy.

But, such an officer is still is required to have personal insurance for off-duty coverage. 

But, what about other POVs outside subsidy programs? Special units, Detectives, and Inspectors may be allowed this privilege, depending on the vehicle and the insurance cover on it, but not for every kind of duty, and definitely not for patrol.

Aside from the obvious lack of adequate patrol equipment such as sirens, lights, radio, security cage, computer, etc., a patrol is rough on a vehicle’s tires, engine, breaks, transmission, and cooling system, the electrical system not to mention – high mileage in very little time. In short, damage risks are high, especially when in pursuit. 

I don’t imagine that a department would outfit a POV for patrol and I’m pretty sure they would not agree to cover maintenance costs and car damages. Such an officer would rack up insurance rates that could cost a leg and an arm.

For officers that are allowed POV use, are they allowed to install some kind of police equipment? Let’s see.

Can Cops Have Lights On Their Personal Cars?

Depending on the local law and intended use of the light, hidden or seriously visible lights could be installed in an officer’s personal car.

However, some state regulations forbid it. For instance, in New York, blue and red lights are specifically reserved for police vehicles, and so, police officers are legally restricted from equipping their POVs with them.

In Florida, police officers and non-patrolling certified officers are allowed the privilege of sirens and lights in their POVs, to enable them to respond immediately to emergencies such as road rage or vehicle accidents.

In some cases, they can pull drivers over and even make an arrest.

In Georgia, except for the Sheriff’s car (in special circumstances) and other state permitted cars, blue lights on POVs are illegal for law enforcement purposes.

Emergency light permits for POVs can also be easily obtained, however, emergency light permits are limited to amber and red colors.

Officers are also oftentimes assigned personal portable radios, which are more stealth and less intrusive than sirens or lights because I imagine that the officer’s insurance company would not appreciate so many modifications.

Generally, personal vehicles with installed lights are not emergency vehicles, so during use for patrol, drivers are not obligated or even required to yield, pull over, stop, and/or provide license and registration, simply because there are lights installed. I guess that’s what distinguishes an unmarked vehicle from a POV used for official duty.

Information on police cars is too much to exhaust in one article. So you may want to consult with an experienced traffic law attorney in your state, to learn more about police laws in your area, or to discover how to report a violating officer.

And suppose you have more information to support this article, I’ll be happy to read them in the comment section below.

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