When Can the Police Search Your RV?
Can the Police Search My RV?
Are you constantly wondering, with your furrowed brow and your shifty eyes, “When can the police search my RV?” Then this is the post for you. But I don’t know why you think about that so much, you shady S.O.B.
Is Your RV a Home Under the Constitution?
You consider your RV your home, right? Especially if you’re full-timing? You have all that matters to you in the world in there – your spouse, your dog, your Precious Moments dolls, and your scrapbooking supplies.
If you live in a normal-people home (i.e., permanent structure, no-wheeled, building-type), then, under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, you are protected from unreasonable searches. What this translates into is that (except under a few limited circumstances) police cannot search your home unless they have: (1) what is called “probable cause;” and (2) a warrant from a judge. “Probable cause” means that a reasonable person would believe that there is evidence of a crime in your home.
… or Is Your RV a Vehicle Under the Constitution?
But what if the law considers your RV more like a vehicle than a home? Well, then, you and the Precious Moments dolls have a lot less protection and you should put on your worried faces, especially if the dolls are filled with la cocaina.
If the police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime, they can immediately search it, without a warrant from a judge. The theory is that, first, vehicles are inherently mobile (and therefore capable of disappearing with the evidence quickly, before a warrant can be obtained), and, second, that you have a lesser expectation of privacy in your vehicle than in your home.
Tough Luck: Your RV is Probably a Vehicle.
So back to the question: Does the law consider your RV a home or a vehicle? The basics are:
(1) If you are in the act of driving/traveling in your RV, it will be considered a vehicle. This means that, if police have probable cause to believe that you have evidence of a crime in your RV, they will immediately search it. They will search every nook and cranny of the entire RV, so don’t bother hiding the Precious Moments dolls in your undies drawer. It will not matter if you have a separate trailer; they will search your vehicle and your trailer. For example, if they pull you over because you have a taillight out, and then marijuana smoke wafts out of your Cheech-and-Chong-size joint and into their keen nostrils, they will search.
(2) If you are on private property, hooked up to utilities, staying long-term, far from any highway, with your RV wheels off and blocks in their place, and you are using a separate vehicle for transportation to and from that RV, then the law will likely consider your RV a home. The officers on the scene might even know this law and not search. What? You say this is never the case? You don’t like your RV up on blocks? Well, then…
(3) There are hundreds of cases along the spectrum from points #1 and #2 above, each with their own fact patterns and slight differences. Once in a while, there will be a court that says the RV is a home with less than what I listed in #2 above. But most courts, short of your RV being up on blocks, etc., will say it’s a vehicle.
… So, what’s the lesson here? Don’t do illegal shit in your RV! If you prefer a riskier life, though, then at least don’t create “probable cause” for police to believe there’s evidence of a crime in your RV. But that might be hard because… you know… there’s evidence of a crime in your RV.
Bottom Line: Your RV will very likely be considered a vehicle by the police, and the courts will usually agree. To be safe, you should assume that your RV will be treated as a vehicle, and will receive less protection from search by police.
What to Do When You Are Pulled Over on the Road
Now that you know to presume your RV will be considered a vehicle, let’s move on to basic advice about how to interact with police when you’re pulled over on the road (in an RV or a car). First, roll down your window and keep your hands on the wheel until the officer gives you direction to take out your license and insurance. Interact politely and do not make sudden moves. Do not admit to anything. If the officer asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” or something similar, generally say, “No, sir” (unless you have a real, true, good reason for the violation). (They may also ask if you have a weapon in the vehicle. We will cover weapons and RVs in another, later post.)
If they ask, “May I search your RV?” say no. Police use that polite, merely-curious-son question when they don’t have probable cause to search, but just don’t like the look of you. If you say yes to their request, then they don’t need probable cause, a warrant, or anything else… because you just gave permission, aka “consent to search.” They're hoping to come across something criminal. If they don’t find it, they’ll be annoyed and ticket you for every violation they can come up with. If you say no to searching, they will of course also be annoyed and ticket you for every violation they can come up with. But it was a no-win, bro, and you don’t want your RV searched.
Why don’t you want your RV searched? Because your Precious Moments dolls are filled with cocaine, dummy! You would be truly surprised by how many people say “yes” to a search, knowing full well they have, say, a dead body covered only with eight, one-pound bricks of heroine. They must be hoping for divine intervention, but God’s too busy receiving thanks from the newest heavyweight champion. You say, “But I don’t have anything illegal in my RV. Why not let them search?” First, you don’t really know that they won’t find something illegal that was left behind by the last owner, your teenaged son, your wiley grandma, or your last scraggly hitchhiker. They also might find violations you don’t think about, e.g. your half-empty boxed wine that is now an “open container.” Finally, why you want the man to search you even if you are innocent? Quit picking on me and, instead, for once in your damn life, officer, pull over and ask to search some middle-aged, white, upper-middle-class, cisgender, non-obese male! Amirite?
At some point, after the officer has issued a ticket (or hopefully not), ask, “Am I free to go, sir?” Do not be confrontational; simply ask. At this point, they need to let you move on, or, if they think they have probable cause, they need to read you your Miranda rights and place you under arrest (unlikely unless there’s something serious going on).
If the officer asks you anything incriminating like, “Have you had anything to drink today?,” respond only, “Am I suspected of something, sir?” They should not be asking you incriminating questions without giving you your Miranda rights.
If an officer does tell you your Miranda rights, invoke them! State that you’d like to remain silent and would like a lawyer. Even if you are completely innocent, answering police questions is unlikely to help you and could hurt you. If you are NOT completely innocent, you MOST DEFINITELY should invoke your rights. The police are not looking to help you but will make you think they are. They are allowed to lie to you and often do so with suspects. Explanations or excuses will only dig you deeper. Do not speak to them. For example, telling them, “I only had a glass of wine two hours ago,” will NOT help.
What to Do When You Are Approached While Your RV Is Parked
If you are parked and the police knock, come out, and close your door behind you.
Make sure you’ve posted “Home Sweet Home” above your door outside. This is the key. They will never enter a “Home Sweet Home” without a warrant. Oh, I didn’t mention that legal loophole above? Because it’s not true, obvi, but it should be, right?
… Alright, so, you’ve closed the door behind you. Same rules here, as above: If an officer politely asks to search your RV, then just-as-politely say NO. This is your home, not their evidence-gathering amusement park. If they think they have probable cause, they will either search anyway (and you can later fight in court whether they had probable cause) or go to a judge for a warrant (you might be screwed, but make them work for it).
If you know you have no evidence of a crime in your RV, well, see above – you might be wrong. And, if you’re not wrong, you might just not want a stranger rummaging through your romance novels, Star Wars figurines, and organic, non-GMO, fiber-rich, all-natural pet foods. Embarrassing!
And They All Lived Happily Ever After