Three public hearings and a few tweaks later, elected officials passed an ordinance pertaining to Lewis County’s unmarked vehicles.
The Board of County Commissioners OK’d the ordinance Monday after hearing from representatives with the sheriff’s office and prosecutor’s office as well as taking public testimony.
“We’ve had meetings. We’ve adjusted,” Commissioner Edna Fund said. “I think we really appreciate the input from individuals, and we have a better product than we had at the beginning.”
Nearly a dozen citizens spoke against the ordinance and one person spoke in favor.
Much of the public’s opposition was to law enforcement pulling drivers over in unmarked vehicles, and the commissioners as well as staff hoped that changes to the ordinance would show that is not the intent.
“I do not intend and this board does not intend to encourage unmarked vehicles to do traffic stops,” Commissioner Bill Schulte said. “... It is my intent today to adopt state law to provide operating instructions and guidelines to our sheriff’s (office).”
Civil deputy prosecuting attorney Glenn Carter said the sheriff’s office’s intended primary use of unmarked vehicles is during confidential investigations into things like drug crimes, human trafficking and other similar illegal activities.
A change to the ordinance regarding traffic control includes allowing deputies in unmarked cars to conduct stops if they witness a crime of traffic infraction and are the closest or best available to respond or in special enforcement circumstances.
State statute allows for law enforcement officers to use unmarked cars for certain duties such as undercover and investigative purposes. It also allows for exceptions when it comes to unmarked cars being used for traffic control. Following a lawsuit in Chelan County, the commissioners wanted to pass the ordinance to clarify when unmarked sheriff’s office vehicles can be used.
Undersheriff Wes Rethwill attempted to provide clarification between marked and unmarked vehicles to hearing attendees. He said the office currently has four unmarked vehicles, two of which have interior lights.
It has another 16 vehicles that do not have sheriff’s office decals, but have various features that legally make them marked vehicles, including things like external roof lights, interior strobe lights, large roof antennas and spotlights, among other things. Each vehicle does not have every feature. The remaining vehicles in the sheriff’s office’s fleet of about 70 have decals labeling them as belonging to the agency.
Rethwill said the ability to use unmarked vehicles gives the agency another tool to investigate situations, and that they will be used appropriately.
Some members of the public said if they are stopped by an unmarked vehicle they don’t plan on stopping because it could be someone impersonating a law enforcement official. Rethwill said if that occurs, he urges citizens to report it so authorities can investigate the situation.