I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. (NIV) Matthew 10:16
By now you likely have heard about the incident involving Yingying Zhang. A visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, she disappeared in early June after being seen entering a car. Through the time of this writing she is still missing. However, the police have arrested a suspect.
This tragic matter underscores the importance of being careful about one’s safety. In this post, I will focus on two aspects of this topic: protecting oneself when hailing a taxi or using a ride service, and understanding the use of unmarked police cars.
Safety regarding taxis and ride services
Before entering a taxi that you have summoned, verify that the driver really is the driver. Generally speaking, a driver is required to post personal information for passengers, and such information most likely is behind the driver’s seat. It should include the name and photograph of the driver. A good idea would be to photograph this information. Consider also photographing the license number of the taxi. Be aware that in many states, taxis and other vehicles have both front and rear license plates. In others, such as Pennsylvania, however, they have only rear plates.
Having this information yourself, while better than nothing, is still of limited use. To more fully protect yourself, make sure someone else knows it, such as a friend, spouse or other person. Equally important: make sure the driver knows that someone else knows. Therefore, after you photograph the driver information sheet or the tax license plate, text the information to another person, but also call the person and let that person know, loudly enough so the driver can hear. While no guarantee of safety, doing so does reduce the chances that the driver might attempt anything improper. If anything were to happen to you, the driver knows that he or she would be the first person the police would contact.
The same general precautions apply if you are using a service such as Uber. In these cases, you may already know details about your ride, because the service may send it to your phone. In this case, you can either use any “share ride details” feature, or else capture the screen as a photo yourself and text it. If you are in a place where many drivers are likely to gather, such as a theater or concert hall at the end of a performance, make sure that the ride is really your ride. Even if the driver is genuine, selecting the wrong one may result in your going to an unknown or undesired destination.
Understanding the use of unmarked police cars
This information is useful if you are or will be driving. Most of not all local police departments use unmarked cars. Such cars look like regular cars—that is, they will not have conspicuous roof-mounted emergency lights, and also will not have special paint patterns or signage to indicate a police car. Although different states and local departments may have their own policies and regulations, here are some things to consider nonetheless:
- Is the person wearing a uniform, or not
In Pennsylvania, police officers who drive unmarked cards must be in uniform. 37 Pa. Code § 42.21. An officer also must carry identification to verify his or her identity unless doing so jeopardizes the officer’s safety due to work assignment, and shall produce it upon request. Id.
Other states may or may not have the same requirement. Or, in other states, different policies might exist depending on the county or municipality itself.
FYI I have observed, in New York City, unmarked police cars driven by plainclothes rather than uniformed officers. Either New York State or New York City have no equivalent regulation to that of Pennsylvania, or else the officers were disregarding it.
- Type of emergency lights
The Pennsylvania vehicle code outlines the types of lights an unmarked police car MAY have. It does not, from what I saw, outline the types of lights it MUST have. However, I suspect that a genuine unmarked police car with its emergency lights on, whether in Pennsylvania or any other place, will resemble the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Put another way: be wary of a car that has, for example, only a single light, be it red, blue or any other color.
In any case, if you have any concerns about whether a car is truly a police car, you could try calling 911. Then describe your situation and request a regular marked car to come.
The above information does not constitute legal advice and does not form an attorney-client privilege. This information is not guaranteed to produce any particular result.
Calvin Sun, Attorney at Law
610-296-3947, cell 215-983-3723
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