NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When you get pulled over, how do you know it's a real police officer making that traffic stop? You may give that a second thought when you see what we uncovered. We found former police vehicles for sale online for anyone to buy. We investigated what's being done to make sure those cars aren't being used to break the law.
Our FOX 8 investigation found that you can pretty much find any kind of emergency equipment you're looking for online. Whether it be blue lights, sirens - even cars that look just like the ones police drive.
"I am a guy who goes to auctions and I am a car guy and I have seen cars with bumpers on them, I've seen them with lights on them, I've seen them with spotlights and with cages and that while not a crime, to send them off in that condition becomes a crime for the person who acquires it and utilizes it," said Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre.
Webre says they strip all police markings and emergency equipment off their cars before they put them up for auction. The reason? They don't want cars like that to get into the wrong hands, especially when homeland security and your safety are more important than ever.
"I've been to those auctions and I have seen some agencies send cars in that they have not hardly taken any of the equipment off, much less the decals," Webre said.
And, you don't have to go to an auction to get a car like that. All we did is search Craigslist. Not only did we find cars advertised as police interceptors all over the place, we also found emergency blue lights for sale. Even a cage that could be installed in the back of a vehicle.
But, here's what you should know: Experts we talked to say these sellers aren't doing anything wrong. An attorney for the New Orleans Fraternal Order of Police says while it may be legal to sell and own cars like that, it may not be legal for you to drive one.
"It is illegal for the average citizen to activate blue or red lights while they are driving," said New Orleans Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Donovan Livaccari. "Having spotlights on your car is a violation of Louisiana traffic code."
That might be unintentional, but, what about a police impersonator?
"People who take actions that indicate that they are truly trying to impersonate a police officer - either through the vehicle or through the uniform or through some other context - should be looked upon as very, very, serious threatening criminals," Webre said.
Just this year that very scenario played out in Plaquemines Parish. In January, the sheriff there warned the public about a police impersonator. A citizen reported being pulled over by a man who flashed an I.D. and a badge. He was also driving a black unmarked car, possibly a Ford Crown Victoria, with a blue light on the dash. That's why the Webre says he would like to see tougher laws on the books to crack down on the sale of cars and equipment like what we saw online.
" I think this issue is one that deserves attention, especially now with Craigslist and social media where those types of items are readily available. Ebay has been selling police paraphernalia for years," Webre said.
So, what's being done about it?
"I think that our intelligence units and so forth have to be aware of it, and they track things like that so they can try to keep an eye on potentially adverse situations," Livaccari said.
And while law enforcement says someone may have a legitimate purpose for buying those types of vehicles, you should know something as simple as how dark the tint is on the windows of that car you just bought could get you in trouble.
"I would think twice before I would acquire such a vehicle, and if I did acquire one, I would immediately take off anything that violates the law and keep it off of the vehicle," Webre said.
We found a Kansas dealer on Craigslist who is selling a police car with the lights on top of it, but he tells us they would remove that emergency equipment on the vehicle before they sold it to a civilian. We also spotted a former police car that appeared to still have law enforcement markings on it. That seller says that's what the car looked like after it was stripped. We also contacted both Craigslist and Ebay. So far only Ebay has gotten back to us, saying they don't allow the sale of fully operational emergency vehicles on their site.
If you are being pulled over and you're not sure it's a real police officer, law enforcement recommends you call dispatch, identify yourself and let them know your location so they can confirm whether you are, in fact, being pulled over by a real officer. While you are doing that, put on your flashers, drive the normal speed limit, and pull over into a well-lit, public place, like a business or gas station. You can also ask for a supervisor to come to the scene if you are suspicious of an unmarked car or officer.