Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Is it legal to stop traffic for church access?

Madera police officer John Rosel, top, watches the Reserve Race pass as he works traffic control along a park street during the CIF Central Section Championships 2013 in Fresno, Calif. Officers often are called upon to provide traffic control for events or can be hired by businesses to do so. They retain their full law enforcement powers during such duties.
Madera police officer John Rosel, top, watches the Reserve Race pass as he works traffic control along a park street during the CIF Central Section Championships 2013 in Fresno, Calif. Officers often are called upon to provide traffic control for events or can be hired by businesses to do so. They retain their full law enforcement powers during such duties. Fresno Bee

Question: Is it legal for a rent-a-cop to stop traffic on Northwest Road to allow the cars from that big-box church to enter Northwest? Just last Sunday, I was stopped to allow two cars to enter the road.

Answer: First of all, when you used the term “rent-a-cop,” I’ll assume you meant “fully commissioned law enforcement officer hired by a private entity for traffic control.” Businesses and organizations often hire law enforcement to provide traffic control services for a limited duration.

Marathon organizers hire law enforcement to direct traffic around the running course. House movers hire officers to block intersections as the house moves along its route. In the situation you described, the church generates enough traffic on Sunday morning that it needs traffic control to allow drivers to safely enter the street. If that level of traffic occurred throughout the day, all week long, a permanent traffic signal would be appropriate, but since it’s only for a few hours a week, the church hires a Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputy to manage the traffic.

When a law enforcement officer is hired, that officer is hired in his or her official capacity and fully authorized to uphold the laws of Washington. So, yes, the scenario you described is legal, and in some instances even required. I don’t know the specifics of the church you mentioned, but in the example of the house mover and the marathon organizer, those activities require permits. Often, the approval of a permit that impacts traffic is conditional on hiring extra officers to support the impact.

If you want to know more about private entities hiring officers, the Lynden Police Department has a thorough explanation of how it works in their city on its website.

Finally, even though the constitution guarantees you freedom of speech, most officers hired by a private organization to protect and serve the public during a specific event won’t appreciate it if you refer directly to them as a “rent-a-cop.” That’s just some free advice.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. Ask a question.

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