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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)

“G-ride, Hot Roller, Code 37” – no matter what you call it, arresting someone driving a stolen car is solid police work. In this article we are going to examine 15 tactics that will assist you in locating stolen cars. Before we look at these tactics, let’s review a couple of basic legal questions.

First, you need little, if any, reasonable suspicion to run a license plate. On the other hand, if you are making a probable cause stop for some other violation (typically a traffic violation) checking the status of the vehicle’s license is common and accepted police safety practice. Second, pre-textual stops are Constitutional. Lastly, many of these tactics would come under the realm of building reasonable suspicion.

Throughout your patrol you pass scores, hundreds perhaps thousands of automobiles; but which ones might be stolen? The point of this article is to narrow down the number of cars to those at which you might want to take a second look. In other words, with all the cars you see, these tactics can help you narrow down the field to taking a closer look at few and thereby greatly increase the likelihood that you will find a stolen car. As you will see, none of these tactics alone indicate a car is stolen, but two or three together are stronger pointers toward further investigation.

Inside the Car

Does the driver have keys? While a few high-end cars have a push button start, most cars require a key in the ignition to start the vehicle. As you’re on patrol, and particularly when you are stopped for a light, develop the habit of looking through your driver’s side window and through the passenger’s window of the vehicle next to you. Do they have a key? Is the steering column intact? What is in plain sight from this typical vantage point? Indeed, I once observed a young driver with a “club” still on the wheel. During the pursuit he could only make quarter turns to the right or left!


The reason the person is driving without lights might be that the steering column has been damaged. When a steering column has been damaged, the headlights and turn signal lights might malfunction. I have seen vehicles with a damaged steering column that caused the bright lights to be stuck on. The point is that your equipment violation may be more than just a fix-it ticket. The better you get at this, the more specific knowledge you’ll have.


What may draw you attention to a potentially stolen car is the age of the driver. Imagine you are stopped at a traffic light. There are two cars a head of you. Both have taillights out, one driver appears to be 30 and the other appears to be 15. Clearly, you are going to conduct the traffic stop on the younger driver. Would a reasonable person of similar training and experience think that person was too young to drive? If so, you are building your reasonable suspicion.

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