Can a police officer without a hat give you a ticket – or is he officially out of uniform?

Written by Gregory Monte.

NOTE: I have added to the bottom of this post an interaction I had with a reader on Facebook about whether a police officer has to be in uniform or not.


This past Saturday, I explained why Pennsylvania police officers must be in uniform in order to write traffic tickets.

A Police Officer Must be in Uniform to Issue a Speeding Ticket … in PA, at Least …

Today I saw a Facebook post which brought up an interesting question: What exactly is meant by being in uniform? If the cop isn’t wearing his hat, is he in uniform?

In searching for an answer to that question I came upon a statute that, at first, made me question whether an officer actually does need to be in uniform to issue a traffic ticket (as I claimed in the previous blog post).


The Officer Doesn’t Need a Uniform?

PA Title 234 Rules of Criminal Procedure has a chapter which actually references the ability of an officer out of uniform to issue a traffic ticket. In a comment to Rule #440 the law says:

“The Vehicle Code provides the procedures for arresting a defendant without a warrant for a summary offense under that Code. It is preferable that the officer making a stop for a traffic violation be in uniform.”


“Preferable” that the officer is in a uniform or necessary?

This rule appears to contradict Title 75, Section 6304(a) which states very specifically that:

“A member of the Pennsylvania State Police who is in uniform may arrest without a warrant any person who violates any provision of this title in the presence of the police officer making the arrest.”


The Court Says a Uniform is Necessary

I also cited in my previous blog post a court case which reversed a lower court decision because the officer was not in uniform – Commonwealth v. Weston, 3 Pa. D. & C. 4th 411 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas 1989:

The commonwealth has cited no authority which creates an exception to the requirement that the officer making the arrest for a traffic summary offense must be in uniform, nor have we found any such authority. Therefore, we reverse defendant’s summary conviction and vacate the sentence of the district justice.”


Confused?

So which is it? Does an officer have to wear a uniform or is it only “preferable” that he does so?

I am not an attorney nor am I a legal scholar. But I know how to do basic research, and I enjoy reading legal documents, cases and procedures. Well, there are rules of statutory construction which help to answer this question. Under Title 101, Sub-chapter C, Section 13.131:

“… whenever a general provision in a statute shall be in conflict with a special provision in the same or another statute …  (2)  If the conflict between the two provisions is irreconcilable, the special provisions shall prevail and shall be construed as an exception to the general provision, unless the general provision shall be enacted later and it shall be the manifest intention of the General Assembly that such general provision shall prevail.

So the more specific statute, Title 75, Section 6304(a), “shall prevail.” Thus a uniform is required – case closed …


But There is an Important Caveat …

Except … did you see that caveat about the general provision being enacted later? It turns out that: “… renumbered Rule 440 and Comment [were] revised March 1, 2000, effective April 1, 2001.”

Unfortunately, Title 75, Section 6304(b) which says a uniform is necessary was enacted in the mid-1970s.

So, what gives? The newer rule only says that a uniform is “preferred” and according to the rules of statutory construction, the newer rule should be followed.

Cops don’t have to wear a uniform to give out tickets then?

Not so fast …

I know I am getting into the weeds here, but I think that it is important that I be able to back up the assertions that I make in this blog. As I have said on numerous occasions, I don’t use other peoples websites or blog posts to prove my case. I actually go to the primary sources – the statutes – to decide the correct answer to any question.

So, to answer the question about uniforms, it really depends on the last part of the quote from Title 101, Sub-chapter C, Section 13.131. Was it the “manifest intention of the [PA] General Assembly” to allow police officer’s who are out of uniform to give tickets?


This is My Final Answer

I wish I could say with 100% certainty that an officer must be wearing a uniform – but that caveat makes me hesitate to do so.

But looking on the bright side of things, based on the way the rule is written, I would say that it is the Commonwealth’s burden to prove that it was the “manifest intention” of the General Assembly to allow a police officer to arrest a citizen of Pennsylvania without warrant for a mere traffic ticket when he wasn’t wearing his uniform.

I will tell you what I do know with 100% certainty. If I ever got a speeding ticket from a police officer who was not in uniform, I would contest it as far as possible – maybe even to the PA Supreme Court.


A Final Bit of Support For My Position – And an Answer to the Question Posed in the Blog Title.

Let me finish with one final statute that supports the view that police officers must wear a uniform of some kind. Title 37, Chapter 42, Section 42.21 deals with procedures when the officer is in an unmarked vehicle. Here is what it says about uniforms:

“Uniforms. Police officers assigned to use an unmarked police vehicle to perform patrol duties shall be attired in an official uniform. Police officers assigned other duties that are likely to include or require traffic stops shall wear an official uniform or alternative attire, such as a police raid jacket, that bears the name of a specific law enforcement agency or task force.

The fact that the PA General Assembly included this type of language in its statute related to police procedure argues for the importance of uniforms.

Incidentally, I think the allowance of “alternative attire” answers that other question which started me on today’s quest for clarification. An officer who is not wearing his hat is almost certainly still in proper uniform.


Interaction with a Reader

I have separated the reader’s comments and mine so you can follow the train of thought.


You pa officer can not arrest out of uniform. You are confusing arrest which is taking into custody to see a judge versus issuing a citation which is technically not an “arrest”

I am a retired officer and could file a traffic citation for an on view offense even when I was not on duty and out of uniform. It was not an arrest. The section you referring to is usually when it is someone from out of state or the police officer does not know or have a confirmed identity of them, they are taken into custody to see the judge and verify their identity and post bond to assure an appearance at trail.


OK thanks for your input. I concluded in that last post that the law is unclear because Rule 440 Criminal Procedure contradicts the Motor Vehicle statute. But I see your point about the difference between an arrest and issuing a citation. My confusion is what is the difference exactly? If an officer detains a citizen in order to issue a citation isn’t that considered an arrest?


If you look at the notes “The Vehicle Code provides the procedures for arresting a defendant without a warrant for a summary offense under that Code.” this shows that this rule does not apply to title 75.You also should probably read https://www.pacode.com/secure/data/234/chapter4/s400.html

But Section 6304 of the Vehicle code does apply according to the judge in Commonwealth v. Weston, 3 Pa. D. & C. 4th 411 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas 1989https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=4551327549638108004&q=commonwealth+v.+weston&hl=en&as_sdt=4,39

“The issue presented is whether a non-uniformed state police officer has authority to make a stop of a motorist for speeding under the present circumstances, and then to detain that individual for a brief period of time in order that a uniformed officer can arrive and issue the citation … We agree with defendant that his detention was an arrest in violation of 75 Pa.C.S. § 6304. The commonwealth has cited no authority which creates an exception to the requirement that the officer making the arrest for a traffic summary offense must be in uniform, nor have we found any such authority. Therefore, we reverse defendant’s summary conviction and vacate the sentence of the district justice.” Which is why I am wondering if there is a difference between merely issuing a citation and detaining a citizen in order to issue a citation.


I think the key takeaway was the following “We agree with defendant that his detention was an arrest ” If he would have released the driver and filed a citation it would have been good. When you detain and arrest it becomes a higher standard needed to support what you are doing.


What you say makes sense. So would you agree that a police officer out of uniform cannot stop a speeding car and issue a ticket on the spot? For that matter, if a car goes through a red light, a non-uniformed officer cannot flag down the car to issue a ticket because that would be a detention (arrest) of sorts.


No, I believe they can stop and issue, if they detain for an unreasonable time (in that case it would be the time in addition to how long it would take to give out the citation, or get the info on the driver to file later, and/or arrest that would be when they violate that case.


Interesting perspective. I will have to find some other cases in PA where the length of the detention time is mentioned in order to clarify this issue. In the Weston case, above, the non-uniformed officer detained for 15 minutes.

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