By March 16, 2009

How to spot an unmarked police vehicle (Virginia, USA)

I spend a fair amount of time on the highway. I have a fifty-plus mile round trip commute every day, plus need to take the highway to get to the fun stuff. Motorcycling for pleasure also tacks on more road time. Add this all together plus my propensity to, uh, push boundaries and you develop a need to identify unmarked police vehicles very quickly.

Here a few ways to tell if that Crown Victoria in front or behind of you is an old lady blabbing on her mobile phone, or an unmarked trooper getting ready to cite you for reckless driving.

First off, let’s make the distinction between an unmarked police vehicle and an undercover police vehicle. An unmarked car is one that law enforcement in your area would normally operate, except it doesn’t have any outward (obvious) signs of being a cop car. It won’t have reflective paint with your city / county / state on it, or a bar of emergency lights on the top. Here in Virginia, all marked cars have ram bars on the front, unmarked variants will not. Good examples of an unmarked car here in Virginia is the Crown Vic or Chevy Malibu. Instead of being white with yellow and red reflective paint and county crests, an unmarked county Crown Vic may be dark silver, black, or maroon. An undercover vehicle, on the other hand, can be any type of vehicle. Some are seized by the county and repurposed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an undercover car make a traffic stop, but I guess if you ran from law enforcement you might encounter some this way.

Unmarked cars always have:

  • Dual exhaust. Some consumer variants may only have one exhaust (Chevy Malibu, for example) but can also have dual exhaust. If the car in front of you has a single exhaust pipe coming out of the back, you’re off the hook.
  • Standard license plates. Unmarked cars will not have a breast cancer awareness plate, horse lover plate, SR-71 plate, or any of the other hojillion special plates offered by the Commonwealth.

Unmarked cars will never have:

  • A dealer’s name on the back. If you see “PEARSON FORD” on the back of a Crown Vic, rest assured that’s a civilian car.
  • A box of Kleenex, stuffed animal, or gold fist air freshner in the back window. Unmarked cars are tidy in the back in case of prisoner transport (except for a light bar, see below).
  • Aftermarket wheels or wheel covers. Spinning donks are not departmental issue.
  • Limo tint on the rear window. Some unmarked cars have slightly tinted windows, so don’t go by this attribute alone.
  • Door lock keypads above the driver’s side door handle.
  • Anything dangling from the rear view mirror.
  • Any window or bumper stickers of any kind except for neighborhood watch and/or D.A.R.E.
  • A Mercury symbol on the hood.
  • An arm out of the window. At least, I’ve never seen an officer doing “4/65” air conditioning before.

Unmarked cars may have:

  • No passenger in the front, but one in the back. Be very suspicious, as this could be an officer transporting a suspect.
  • A passenger in the front. It is rare for a trooper to travel with a partner, but it could be a veteran and a rookie, or someone on a ride-a-long.
  • A light bar in the rear window.
  • A bunch of tall antenna mounted either on the trunk lid or roof.

Usage: add up the attributes possessed by an unmarked car, then subtract any civilian attributes. This is a more cautious approach than just looking for civilian signs, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. When in doubt, assume the vehicle in question belongs to law enforcement.

Example: I was on the highway, approaching a dark gray Crown Victoria. I slowed down to assess if the vehicle was unmarked or civilian. There was a light bar in the rear window and two tall antenna on the back. However, the vehicle only had one exhaust. I sped up and passed the car, and looked at the plate as I went by. The vehicle belonged to a volunteer firefighter. Instead of the white and blue strobes found on a trooper’s light bar, the firefighter’s light bar had amber lights instead. Not law enforcement.

Night time detection is more advanced, and you have to rely on headlight and tail light shape more than anything else. This also means that by the time you can discern make and model, the officer will have already paced you and/or hit you with a detection device. If a vehicle approaches you rapidly, assume it is a law enforcement officer and move over. You can still evaluate an unmarked car if you approach from the rear.

I am surprised at how many people don’t pay attention and pass an unmarked over the legal limit. What surprises me more is when nothing happens to the speeder, but I have also seen people get pulled over right in front of me for “buzzing” an unmarked. The next time you’re on the road, try to spot as many unmarked law enforcement vehicles as you can.

What unmarked vehicles are typically driven in your state or country?

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22 Comments on "How to spot an unmarked police vehicle (Virginia, USA)"

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  1. Gremlin says:

    Montana uses mustangs. I’ve also seen and increase in big SUV’s. Usually Expeditions. The marked police cars are all pretty low profile these days. Interior light bars behind tinted windows. If I’m speeding, I’m screwed as I’ll never see it before they hit me with radar.

  2. Mike says:

    Almost always Crown Vics. I second what Gremlin said about low profile marked cars, it’s probably about half full light bar on the roof and half dash and rear window mounted lights.

    There is one funny story about “unmarked” cars, though…the local county Sheriffs have an unmarked/unmodded (no light bar, no dual exhaust, doubt it has the cop suspension/engine package) Impala. They use it mainly for running speed traps where the Impala will be sitting on the side of the road and clock you and will then radio one of the plethora of marked Sheriffs cars that are sitting around the next bend or over the next hill. The funny thing is that this Impala still has govt plates on it, so it’s fairly easy to spot from a distance (NE govt plates are all white, NE normal plates are not.)

  3. Spectre says:

    I have also seen here in VA unmarked Impala’s, and Dodge Chargers that the Staties use. But your observations still apply to those unmarked cars too.

  4. Marc says:

    OK, pardon my ignorance… what do you mean by “buzzing” an unmarked car?

  5. drfaulken says:

    Hi Marc, it’s a borrowed term from flying close to something at a high rate of speed.

  6. Marc says:

    Ah… the “oops, I-didn’t-know-that-was-there-is-it-too-late-to-hit-my-breaks” syndrome… I see it all the time.

    I count myself lucky at not falling prey to the syndrome or the enforcement, in that I spend pretty much all my time in the left lane.

    My big irritant is people that flip lanes in heavy-steadily-moving traffic… we set up a nice pattern that everybody can live with, and then some knucklehead jumps two lanes over and two lanes back to move up two spots. As much as I am a live-and-let-live guy, I really would like THOSE folks to spend a few un-comfortable minutes explaining to the men in grey. Can’t we all just get along? Not if you’re gonna weave in and out.

    Oh, and don’t get me started about the punks on crotch-rockets who buzz between two cars already doing 90… Sheesh. You’d think I was my grandfather…

  7. Eric says:

    What is your take on ghosting? The act of riding behind someone who is speeding in order to allow them to be clocked first.

  8. Daniel says:

    In VIrginia, on Dulles Access Road, they now have undercover SMART cars. I watched someone getting pulled over! The car has lights either in the grill or on top of the dashboard and a siren.

  9. Marc says:

    Re: Ghosting…

    There’s no guarantee that the ghost stays off of the radar…

    Long time ago, I was driving up the easter shore and had a string of cars passed me @ a high rate of speed. A little later two police cars passed me (scared the heck outta me, as *I* was over the limit).

    The two police cars “surrounded” the column of speeding cars and pull them all at once.

    I was not one of the un-lucky ones! 😀

    That is something I’ve only seen twice in the greater 30 years I’ve been driving (boy, that makes it sound like I’m really old…):

  10. Steve says:

    This is all good information about spotting cop cars but the point is moot when they start using things like this:

    and other cars like everybody else mentioned, the mustang, intrepids, etc. It’s not as easy as just looking for that big lightbar any more! 🙂

  11. Chris says:

    Hello, even though I am from the E.U. not from USA I am going to elaborate a little bit on ghosting since I using different variation of it.
    ghosting may or may not work it is not guaranteed especially with newer technologies (especially speed cameras) the success levels of ghosting are risky.
    What i am doing is to follow a speeding car from a safe distance where I can assess the reaction of the driver in front. It is common logic that when a speeding driver spots a radar he will slow down as much as possible (not nesessarily hit the brakes in panic mode but he will slow down considerably…usually the speeding driver will get his ticket but if the officer was a bit late to clock him then he will get a few numbers off the ticket. However as you are following from a safe distance you usually have enough time to revert to legal limits.
    although not entirely safe in terms of fines and not the fastest possible it is the best yet solution I’ve found. You will need to adjust the distance at different speeds. try to keep it within 5 seconds if possible as you must always have eye contact with the speeding car in front. If the guy is speeding too much to keep eye contact on the 5seconds limit then break off pursuit and find a more suitable speedster because if the guy in front goes to fast in order to keep eye contact in a bend you must definately be closer in terms of time, which will not give enough time to reduce speed to legal limits.
    This technique had been used in rallying before the change of service regulations and rally cars would speed their way to service in order to gain more time servicing, so we would have our chase car run in front at extremely high speed notifying via radio the racing car of the road ahead(something you don’t have in a normal car since assessing the reaction alone was not enough because the speeds we are talking about were in excess of 260km/h around 160mph). In normal conditions however you will not reach this kind of speeds and to be frank if you do, you deserve getting busted 😛
    Until now I was never pulled up in the highway using this technique and I hope to get by like that for years to come.

  12. Steve ponyboy says:

    You need to look in the grille to locate the little rectangular lights. Also when ghosting and the front guy (we call the penguin, the penguins line up at the edge of the ice and push a sacrificial lamb into the water for a whale to eat)when his tail lights come on I downshift to ease down without hitting the brake lights to be obvious. In Chesapeake they use the Chargers so watch out. In Va. the cars with police doge will have black out windows to keep the interior cool, so the dark window theory is incorrect in the southern states.
    Keep the speed down in the neighborhoods and STOP at all signs and redlights to limit risk. I have no tickets in 2 fast Mustangs and have been known to trip tripple digits occasionally. It is really cool to run 115 on the Wright Bros. bride in NC.
    Be cool. Ponyboy

  13. Manny says:

    Alot of people do pass unmarked patrols.
    But you have to consider that only a small portion of unmarked vehicles are dedicated to actual traffic enforcement. Most are driven by detectives

    Im a detective and drive an unmarked impala, and people pass me daily going well over the limit.

    Unless surprisingly I have spare time, or only if I see someone do something really really stupid will I then do a stop. But you wont see it much since then I have to spend a day in court =/

  14. Jason says:

    Around Tacoma Washington the state patrol has a early nineties brown chevy pickup truck. Aftermarket wheels, diamond plate tool box and some dents and rust. Looks like any other work truck on the road. Trooper just keeps his hat on the seat until he hits the lights.

  15. Steven says:

    Broward County, Florida. I drive from Weston to Downtown Ft.Lauderdale on a daily basis, about 35 miles. I’ve seen things, that amazes me. Unmarked vehicles I often see are Dodge Chargers, usually black or dark blue, Chevy Impalas, Tahoes, Crown Vics, Ford Explorers. Ive seen Pontiac GTOs, and in weston, unmarked Corvettes. Usually what you would expect, American Vehicles. But lately i’ve seen undercover vehicles, for example Honda Civic coupes, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Armadas, Maximas, and even Honda Odysseys (usually in cities of course). Ive seen these cars stop people, but the first time I saw 2 of them, a Civic coupe and a Maxima, was the day I actually decided to drive the legal limit. They were driving behind me for about 10 miles, and then suddenly put on their sirens as if they received a call or something, pretty cool.

  16. b says:

    i was just followd by at first a white blazer clean and gangster i didnt even know for the first 5 miles till i saw the exempt then changd lanes and forced him to hafta drive past me where i saw on his computer he lookd me up, then as soon as i ditch him i start geting followd by get this a land rover, super clean first thing i did was lookd in the miror and saw exmpt on the plate. so i hit cruise control and when i turnd into my house i lookd back and sure enuf another cop computer inside a dope ass ride. what the f. they must be poppin fools for rides like suckas. glad them fools have no want for me.

  17. David Neal says:

    I live in sioux falls south dakota and we are basically the only real city in SD. There’s the generic crown vic undercovers. The undercovers who are looking for the drugs or are in the DEA(Just built an office in Sioux Falls) drive black tinted to shit 2009 or 2010 dodge durangos. There is also a well-known undercover who drives a Dodge Ram 1500 quad cab who revs his engine at stop lights to get street racers to race him then when the racer passes the speed limit they get lit up. It is very surreal to watch and ive seen it happen twice.

  18. Gupta Singh says:

    I live in CA (west coast/SFBA/SF Bay Area). A couple of days ago, I was driving a little over the speed limit and I saw a black Dodge Charger. When approaching the car, I saw in the rear window that had a light tint on it and there was a black laminated paper that had the FBI seal, text said, “FBI (largest text on paper) UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE/FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION US GOVERNMENT OWNED VEHICLE (and other text that was hard for me to read it). When the light turned green, I changed lanes, sped up on the side of the car, saw the guy that was driving, passed him and changed lanes in front of him w/o using my turn signals. Then he changed lanes and approached my left side. He was sort of shaking his head at me, like I did something wrong. I was sort of confused and nervous that I might get pulled over.

  19. Steelz says:

    As an OTR trucker, Ive seen all types of vehicles used by law enforcement. An Infinity in Illinois, a Jeep Cherokee in Kentucky, a ‘vette in Texas. Look at therr taiilights. In daylight u can see the bulbs in them. More than one bulb in the lamps, you got yourself a Kojak with a Kodak in a plain brown wrapper. Just one tip. Also look for extra light/lights around the rear window brakelight. And one more thing, just cars pulled over in odd spots along the blacktop, usually a dead giveaway. Just a couple tips from a “Million Miler accident and violation free”!!

  20. Quarant says:

    I am from Canada. What are those 3 flat white clay pigeon sized discs mounted on the rear part of the roof?

  21. Arthur Dent says:

    Saw police in the North Atlanta area (possibly GSP) using a white Ford Explorer. Blue lights on the inside, but no exterior markings, and a civilian tag (Fulton BRS 5189).

  22. ruffles says:

    Regarding the poster for this article. He is incorrect about all marked police cars having push bumpers and unmarked ones not. This simply false. Its completely dependent on that jurisdiction. Also regarding license plates. Again this is also false and is dependent on the jurisdiction. I will agree on 90% of unmarked cars having dual exhaust, but this is also entirely dependent on the jurisdiction. It all comes down to money.

    I have am former VSP and have worked with many areas, and many other localities. I myself have had both a marked and unmarked vehicle. For my old department, there are some indicators, however there have been changes made to have more ghost cars around and they have always been around, just alot more.