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Ask a trooper: 'Unmarked' vehicles allow State Patrol to observe

Q: In the past year or so, I've observed on several occasions a "flat top" with no markings having pulled over a motorist on London Road in Duluth. The posted speed limit is 30 mph, but, if memory serves, that whole stretch from the start of the freeway to beyond 60th East used to be a 40 mph zone when I moved here 35 years ago. Then the road was "widened" into two lanes from four lanes.

I made an inquiry and was told that the Duluth Police Department doesn't use unmarked cars. And it was suggested that the cars in question must be highway patrol vehicles. Now, I can see going undercover to stop terrorists from causing havoc, but to go undercover to apprehend some guy going 40 mph in what used to be a 40 mph zone seems a little odd to me.

I'm thinking the main reason for undercover tactics must be "revenue enhancement." I recently read a news story that says fatal car crashes are at a 70-year low. Hard to believe we need to crack down even further. Just like the seat belt law that started out as a secondary offense, then a primary offense with $25 fine, and now a $125 fine, it sure seems like revenue is a factor.

I'm not angry or upset. I'm just somewhat saddened by what we have come to in this day and age on the highways of the state. Down in the Twin Cities where everybody drives like nuts, I've seen any number of odd vehicles used by the State Patrol to trap and skin motorists. I once saw an S-10 Chevy pickup apprehending someone. And while one guy is getting a ticket, 200 other cars are going by at 10 mph over the limit.

So, to condense everything into a question for the newspaper column, what is the reasoning behind unmarked car police tactics on our highway? I think a lot of other motorists have been wondering about this for a long time also. Please, don't just give me an answer that amounts to a pat on the head. Any reply at all is optional.

A: I have never really been asked that in 31 years. I also thought everyone knew why most law enforcement agencies have unmarked vehicles. The main reason of course, is so we can see people doing things we might not otherwise see while in a marked car. Another reason is for special assignments for when we can't or don't want to be as visible, which might be critical to some investigations or cases. The State Patrol also uses them for driving VIPs around as required. Less than 10 percent of our fleet is unmarked, and it has always been that way.

To clarify, your version of an unmarked police vehicle might be different than reality because all of them do have a required marking on the right door, displaying the department name and logo. We do have totally unmarked cars used for administrative purposes (just like most other departments) but they are not used in traffic enforcement. Just because a police car does not have the lights on top does not mean it is "unmarked."

The State Patrol gets no money from fines, and never has that I know of. As for the seat belt issue, that has nothing to do with unmarked cars. Also, the seat belt fine is still $25. The rest of the money above that is mostly county fees that are attached to the base fine, making it higher. Your local court can tell you more about that. Police departments are not in the money-making business, and are not involved in your idea of "revenue enhancement," but rather, public safety. Thanks for asking, and try not to watch too much television.

Sgt. Curt S. Mowers is a regional public information officer for the Minnesota State Patrol.

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