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Washington: Motorist Takes on Unauthorized Unmarked Police Cars
Driver challenges Washington State Police to issue him a ticket so he can challenge unmarked cop cars in court.

Unmarked police carThe state of Washington generally prohibits the use of unmarked police cars for ordinary traffic duties. Criminals are known to take advantage of the ability to impersonate a police officer in states that allow unmarked traffic patrols by using a flashing light to pull over and rob or assault motorists, so lawmakers in the Evergreen State sought to prevent this by only authorizing unmarked police vehicles for "special undercover or confidential investigative" work. Nonetheless, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) has about 200 unmarked sedans and trucks it uses for routine ticket-writing duties.

"Our Aggressive Driving Apprehension Team troopers patrol for the worst of the worst," Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins explained. "They're looking for drivers who are committing multiple violations, such as speed, following too closely, weaving in and out of traffic, or other behaviors that directly impact the drivers around them and create unsafe driving conditions. We think it's helpful for those drivers to always wonder whether there's a police vehicle nearby that they might not recognize. We know these drivers often change their driving behaviors temporarily if they see a traditionally marked police vehicle."

The state law prohibiting the use of unmarked police cars (RCW 46.08.065) offers an exemption for the state police chief to use unmarked cars as "traffic control vehicles." In the state's usage refers to cars with flashing yellow lights meant to direct traffic through highway work zones or accident sites.

"We consider traffic law enforcement to be part of traffic control," Calkins explained.

Motorist Kevin Schmadeka does not agree, saying this is a twisting of a very clear statute.

"Just because WSP considers traffic enforcement to be part of traffic control doesn't make it so," Schmadeka said. "The law is clear on marking requirements and creative interpretations do not legitimize their violations of the law in any fashion."

To back up his claim, Schmadeka produced a copy of the 37-year-old bill analysis that explained the intent of the legislature when it originally adopted the unmarked car statute.

"The bill is intended to provide better public visibility of government owned vehicles and to provide a means for more efficiently making vehicles operated by the state and units of local government," Legislative Auditor Thomas R. Hazzard wrote in a memo dated January 31, 1975. "A vehicle marking exemption for vehicles used by sheriffs, local police and local peace officers is continued but is limited to vehicles used for undercover or confidential investigative purposes."

Schmadeka is so confident in his reading of the law that he's issuing a challenge to Washington State Patrol and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.

"Meet with me and write me a seatbelt ticket from an unmarked car, with the understanding that these cases will be decided upon the legality of the unmarked cars," Schmadeka said. "This has been going on far too long, they are fully aware of the illegal nature of their actions, and it's time for this to be decided in court."

Schmadeka has fought unmarked car citations previously only to have the judge dismiss the ticket on grounds unrelated to the use of unmarked vehicles.