Montana Senate panel nixes ban on unmarked patrol cars

| 4/22/2005

A Montana Senate panel has thrown out a bill that would have prohibited law-enforcement officers from running routine traffic checks in unmarked cars.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to table the bill, effectively killing it for the year. It passed the House by a 73-27 vote in March.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Scott Mendenhall, R-Whitehall, said the practice of covertly monitoring and enforcing traffic laws amounts to an invasion of privacy.

“As policymakers, we have to decide do we want to adhere to our strong privacy statement in the constitution, or an increasing trend toward increasing police presence in our lives,” Mendenhall told The Associated Press prior to the vote.

Law-enforcement officials refuted Mendenhall by saying that unmarked cars are valuable tools to stop drunk drivers and prevent accidents in school and construction zones.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Wheat, D-Bozeman, sided with law enforcement.

He told the Queen City News he had no beef with unmarked cars in Montana.

“This is trying to deal with criminals by taking away the ability of law enforcement to enforce the law,” Wheat said.

Mendenhall’s bill excluded vehicles used by detectives and undercover agents. It was introduced a year after the Highway Patrol revived the use of unmarked cars for the first time in 30 years.

The agency has about 13 of the vehicles, which are not painted with the patrol emblem or don’t have the traditional emergency lights arrays on their roofs. The vehicles do have such lights within the vehicle and hidden behind the front grill.

The bill – HB368 – would have cost Montana about $32,000 to repaint unmarked state patrol cars.