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Guy Pulls Over Deputy for Illegal Unmarked Cop Car. Was He Right?

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 21, 2014 9:16 AM

This is backwards. This is really backwards.

Last week, "Liberty Speaker" Gav Seim posted a video of himself pulling over an unmarked patrol car. In the video (embedded below), the activist lectures the visibly annoyed sheriff's deputy on the illegality of unmarked police cars, asks to see his identification, tells him that he could be arrested for going on patrol in an unmarked car, and eventually lets him off with a warning.

It'd be hilarious if the activist wasn't so smug (anyone who says, "We the people are sentinels of our liberty" can't be taken too seriously). But more importantly, does he have a point?

Previously, on FindLaw

We've discussed the issue of the legality of unmarked cop cars before, and like most legal questions, the answer to whether unmarked police cars are legal is: "It depends."

In New York, they seem to be perfectly legal and are currently being used to spot traffic violations, including drivers who are texting while driving. But in Ohio, all cars must be distinctively marked and equipped with police lights.

Why? Many argue that unmarked cop cars can be unsafe. We provided the examples of two incidents in Mississippi in 2012, when drivers were pulled over by fake unmarked police cars and gunned down by fake officers. Seim, in a blog post about last week's video, cites cases of rape and assault.

As seen in his video, Seim makes a similar case to the sheriff's deputy he pulled over:

The truth is, if a cop car is unmarked, you don't know if it really is a cop until a badge is flashed in your face. By then, it could be too late.

Unsafe and Illegal?

Safety is one issue, but what about the legality of unmarked cop cars? Is Seim correct about them being illegal in Washington state?

Seim points to a state law, RCW 46.08.065, which sets a baseline rule requiring cars to be marked -- before providing an exemption:

"This section shall not apply to vehicles of a sheriff's office, local police department, or any vehicles used by local peace officers under public authority for special undercover or confidential investigative purposes."

This is where we get into the fun game (for lawyers and judges) of interpreting vague laws. One might see this and think that (a) sheriff's deputies, (b) local police, and (c) undercover cars are all exempt.

But not only did Seim dig up some legislative history (where the lawmakers note that the exception is "limited to vehicles used for undercover or confidential investigative purposes"), but one only has to think of the implications of that broad interpretation to realize that it is practically unfeasible -- if all sheriff's, police, and undercover cop cars are exempt, that would make the "undercover" part redundant, wouldn't it?

The statue also goes on to allow the "department of general administration" to allow other exemptions to this marked vehicle requirement, but time-limits the exemptions to 90 days. Again, if the broader interpretation were the correct one, this would also be redundant.

Generally, when judges read laws, they will interpret the law so that as much of it has meaning as possible (the "Rule Against Surplusage"). It is presumed that the people who wrote the law didn't stick a whole bunch of extra text in there for no reason at all.

So, to sum it all up, at least in Washington state, Seim is probably correct: It is illegal for law enforcement officers to be using unmarked cop cars to run routine patrols. However, it remains to be seen if a random guy, pulling over unmarked cars, can get them to follow that law.

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