At the request of the sheriff, Spokane County commissioners last week passed an ordinance authorizing the use of unmarked patrol cars, amid statewide controversy about the practice.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the county ordinance reiterates what state law already says, that the department has the authority to operate vehicles without official markings. The county ordinance limits use of unmarked cars to undercover detectives and deputies, high-ranking members of the office and deputies performing traffic control.
Knezovich said he was moved to act because the state Legislature won’t.
“For five years we have asked people at the state Legislature to clean this up, to no avail,” Knezovich told commissioners Tuesday.
The sheriff said controversy about the vehicles began after the shooting of the Rev. Scott Creach on his property in Spokane Valley by former sheriff’s Deputy Brian Hirzel. In that 2010 incident, the deputy was parked on Creach’s property in a patrol car that wasn’t marked with the department’s shield.
The county eventually settled a civil lawsuit in the case for $2 million, in a decision Knezovich fought. He said last week Hirzel’s car featured a push bar, spotlight and exempt license plates, and there was “no doubt” the car belonged to law enforcement. Hirzel did not face criminal charges in the case.
One of the attorneys for the Creach family, Richard Wall, said the sheriff’s interpretation of state law was “nonsense.”
“The exemption would apply to most of the vehicles out there,” Wall said. State laws says that vehicles used by all public officers working for local governments should have clear markings, with certain exceptions. It reads, “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.”
Knezovich said he’s received assurance from county legal staff, as well as the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, that the emphasis should be on the first “or,” meaning all sheriff and police vehicles would be exempted from the marking rules.
Wall said the emphasis should be on the “for” near the end of the sentence, meaning vehicles must be used for confidential purposes in order to qualify for the exemption. He conceded that the law is not written perfectly and allows for multiple interpretations.
The courts have not officially weighed in on the dispute, and a bill that would have changed state law to align with Knezovich’s position died in committee this legislative session. However, a later section of the law gives local governments the ability to make their own rules about unmarked cars, which is what the commission did Tuesday. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Al French voted for the language, with Shelly O’Quinn absent.
“These are not new,” Mielke said Tuesday, referring to the use of unmarked traffic control cars. “These have been around as long as I’ve been around.”
The issue was once again in the news last fall, when a YouTube video was posted by a Grant County man who had previously sought political office under the Constitutionalist banner. The man flags down a sheriff’s deputy in an unmarked car and asks for ID, saying the deputy is in violation of state law. The video went viral, standing at 3.8 million views as of Thursday afternoon.
Knezovich said he asked the commissioners to step in after similar laws passed in Chelan and Lewis counties. Knezovich said those who opposed the department’s policy on unmarked cars are motivated by “political agendas,” rather than an understanding of the law.
Mielke said he also didn’t see why the issue is cropping up now, when unmarked cars have been used by law enforcement for decades.
“I fail to understand why this has become such a hot issue with people, as if it’s something that’s been recently introduced,” Mielke said Tuesday. “It’s not.”
Knezovich said the county policy would make deputies safer.
“We have individuals now, in this state, that are literally trying to interfere in traffic stops or are trying to pull police officers over who are driving unmarked cars,” Knezovich said.
Mielke said the new law would go a long way to changing the conversation following a traffic stop: “The debate shouldn’t be about what car the officer was driving, but the debate is about whether you were doing 40 in a 20.”
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