Unmarked Police Cars Explained

For when the blues and twos just aren’t subtle enough and white with fluorescent yellow can’t blend in to the crowd, unmarked police cars are available to the UK’s police forces for more clandestine operations. Naturally, these police units are shrouded in mystery, which may seem a little bit unfair, but we’re on hand to explain how these unmarked cars operate, what they’re allowed to do and how you can spot one when out on the road.

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What Is An Unmarked Police Car?

Unless you’re in-the-know, you won’t be able to spot these cars, but that’s the point. They’re police cars without the markings; no identifiable colours or liveries and no noticeable blue lights – until they’re switched on, that is. Their whole purpose is to allow the police to go about their business, getting close to people and places of interest without alerting suspects, wanted criminals, and even the general public.

What Are Unmarked Police Cars Used For?

Unmarked cars can be used for anything from cruising an area of interest without drawing the focus onto themselves to, more commonly, enforcing traffic laws and making sure people aren’t putting other driver’s lives in danger with illegal actions, like using a phone at the wheel. They’re essentially providing police forces with a way to operate without disrupting everyday life until it’s absolutely necessary to do so.

Are Unmarked Police Vehicles Legal?

The UK’s police forces are under scrutiny now more than ever, with some people suggesting that we’re heading towards an Orwellian dystopia, but one thing is for certain – unmarked police cars are completely legal and have been for decades.

It might seem a bit dodgy, and criminals caught by cops in these cars may try to claim that they were entrapped, but there’s nothing in the law that stops police from using undercover vehicles to keep drunk drivers and other lawbreakers off the road.

How To Spot An Unmarked Police Car

Since these vehicles are designed specifically to remain unnoticed, it’s never going to be easy to identify one out on the road. However, there are some telltale signs that you’re looking at an unmarked police car. Here’s what to look for:

Almost new, always clean – Unmarked UK police cars will almost always be near enough spotless, and will usually be under three years old.

Common cars – They’re most likely going to be a brand that’s plentiful on British roads, as opposed to one that’s a bit rarer. They’ll also be a neutral colour; black, blue, silver or sometimes white. Anything brighter than that and it’s probably a civilian vehicle. They’ll be on the bigger side, too, with no cosmetic modifications. No hatchbacks or coupes.

Two bob – Most unmarked cars will have two officers inside, with one possibly in uniform and another in plain clothes.

Nothing personal – If the car you’re suspicious of has personalised plates, rule it out. No police force has the money to waste on customising their registration plates.

Observe behaviour – Unmarked cars will always drive to the letter of the law, and if they’re tailing someone, they’ll make a conscious effort to stay some distance behind. If you spot two people in a nondescript, black SUV that’s driving as good as gold, there’s a chance they could be coppers.

Grille check – Perhaps you’ll end up close enough to one of these suspicious cars to take a glance inside the front grille. A dead giveaway is the presence of LED lights, ready to light up blue at the touch of a button.

Learn code – Some police forces will purchase all of their unmarked cars from the same area, meaning they’ll all have identical codes on their licence plates. An example, as given by The Sun, is MX for Manchester and GX for Surrey. Of course, not every car with these plates will be police operated!

It’s worth mentioning that when you’re driving, trying your hardest to figure out if the car behind you is an unmarked copper is likely to leave you distracted and you could be finding out the hard way that they are indeed a police unit. Not focussing on the road ahead could see you charged with ‘driving without due care and attention’.

Do Unmarked Police Cars In The UK Have Speed Cameras?

In the UK, unmarked police cars do have speed cameras. While not all jobs that these plain clothes officers undertake will call for their use, those cars being used for traffic enforcement will have this gear installed.

In fact, it was reported in early 2023 that some police forces, including Northamptonshire, have even begun to roll out unmarked police speed vans which will be positioned at the roadside in a bid to catch speeding drivers out. Typically, these speed camera vans can be seen a mile off, so road users will slow down to avoid trouble, before accelerating again once they’re passed it. This new, secretive approach aims to prevent that.

Do You Have To Stop For An Unmarked Police Car?

It may come as a surprise, but you actually don’t need to stop for an unmarked police car – on one condition. If an unmarked police car flashes its lights at you in an attempt to get you to pull over, you should only do so if you’re 100% certain that the car in question is a legitimate police unit. If you feel intimidated or don’t believe that it is a real police car, you should drive immediately to your nearest police station if possible, or alternatively to a public area, like a petrol station or even a residential street.

By law, for an unmarked police unit to pull somebody over, there must be a uniformed officer in the car. If you are made aware of the presence of a uniformed police officer then you must stop.

Travelling to a safer location, like a police station, will be considered in court if the police take action to charge you. If the judge believes you were refusing to stop to avoid arrest, you could find yourself in even more trouble.

Can An Unmarked Police Car Pull You Over For Speeding?

Yes, an unmarked police car can pull you over for speeding but, to reiterate the point made in the previous section, an undercover unit can only stop a vehicle if there is a uniformed officer on board.

Pulling over a car while all occupants of the police unit are in plain clothes does not comply with the provisions of the law.

What To Do If You’re Pulled Over By An Unmarked Police Vehicle

If you do fall foul of the law in the presence of an unmarked police car, the first thing you should do is confirm that they are indeed legitimate. You are well within your rights to keep your windows closed until the officer in question – who should be in uniform, remember – shows you their warrant card, which will identify them as genuine police.

Once you’re confident everything is above board, the stop will be under the control of the police unit, who will inform you as to why they’ve pulled you over.

The police can pull you over if they don’t think your car is safe to be on the road, so if you’re looking at your old vehicle and thinking you’re risking a fine, you’re probably better off selling it now with Scrap Car Comparison.

We’ll find you the best price for your vehicle in your local area, no matter where you are in the UK and we even offer free collection as standard for every customer! Get a quote today by calling 03333 44 99 50 or by entering your postcode and vehicle reg into our scrap value calculator.

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