Not all patrol cars have decals that show they’re on the side of the law — and that’s OK by the state.
Law enforcement agencies in Indiana can lawfully use unmarked cars for traffic stops as long as the police officer is wearing “a distinctive uniform and a badge of authority,” according to Indiana Code 9-30-2-2. Plainclothes detectives, administrators and police officers can’t arrest or issue a warning or summons for a traffic violation if they’re in a car that’s not clearly marked as a police vehicle.
However, the code doesn’t apply to instances where a plainclothes police officer makes an arrest in the presence of a uniformed one.
An unmarked car also has to have signal lights — those blue and red lights you see flashing on top or in police cars — to be an authorized emergency vehicle, according to Indiana Code 9-19-14-5.
Elkhart Police Department and the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department use unmarked cars for traffic enforcement and, in some cases, criminal investigations. But the responsibilities of a police officer aren’t any different if he’s in a marked or unmarked car — one’s just more inconspicuous.
The patrol division of the police department has three such cars, in addition to the unmarked vehicles used by detectives and administrators, Sgt. Chris Snyder said. It’s easier for them to use a lower-profile vehicle to monitor driving habits and enforce traffic laws.
“If we get a complaint, we can send them out there and say, ‘Hey, go see what the traffic patterns are,’ so they can sit off to the side of the road and they can monitor what that traffic is,” Snyder said. “And then we can look at it and see, you know, is this a justified complaint or is this a perception problem that we need to deal with.”
The same goes for the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, which uses unmarked Dodge Chargers or even pickup trucks, said Capt. Jim Bradberry. They’ve also used unmarked cars for criminal investigations.
“It gives you a lot more opportunities to conduct more patrols, you know,” he said. “It would allow you to see more things and crime happening than if you were just in a fully marked car (that’s) completely recognizable.”
The sheriff’s department has received reports of people who have used mobile applications that imitate the flashing blue and red lights of an emergency vehicle, which Bradberry said is “obviously” illegal.
“Basically, you’re setting yourself up for violating the law for impersonating an emergency vehicle when it’s not and you’re impersonating a police officer,” he said.
If you’re pulled over by a police officer you suspect might be an impersonator, Snyder and Bradberry recommend pulling over to a well-lit area and calling either the local law enforcement agency or emergency dispatchers.
In a legitimate traffic stop, police officers will have notified emergency dispatchers of their location and the description of your car, according to an Ask-the-Sheriff column on the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department website.
If the person is an impostor, stay in your car, lock your doors and call 911.
You can reach the Elkhart Police Department at 574-295-7070, Elkhart emergency dispatchers at 574-293-2175 and the Elkhart County 911 Center at 574-533-4151.