Can police search your RV (recreational vehicle or motorhome)?
Do they need a warrant before searching an RV? The answer depends on whether your RV is a “vehicle” or a stationary residence that is incapable of driving…
There is plenty of misinformation out there about whether or not police need a warrant before searching your vehicle or your home, and some of that misinformation is dangerous. For example, you may have seen a Youtube video or read an article that said you can refuse to roll down your car window or step out of your vehicle because the police don’t have a search warrant.
Not realizing that 1) police don’t need a search warrant to search your car (or your RV in many cases) and 2) police can always ask you to step out of your vehicle (see Pennsylvania v. Mimms), you may be in for a surprise when the officers break your window and forcibly remove you from your car…
Are You Driving on the Road When Police Want to Search Your RV?
If your RV is a vehicle that can drive down the road, the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies.
In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985), the US Supreme Court held that a motorhome or RV is a mobile vehicle; therefore, the automobile exception applies, and the police do not need to get a search warrant before searching your RV.
The Automobile Exception to the Fourth Amendment’s Search Warrant Requirement Applies to RVs
There are two justifications for the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. First, the vehicle is “readily mobile by the turn of an ignition key,” even if it is not moving at the time. Second, there is a reduced expectation of privacy because it is a licensed motor vehicle that is subject to regulations that do not apply to fixed residences.
The Supreme Court held that 1) if the RV/ motorhome is being used on the highway, or 2) if it is capable of being used on the highway, then the automobile exception applies:
When a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes — temporary or otherwise — the two justifications for the vehicle exception come into play. First, the vehicle is obviously readily mobile by the turn of an ignition key, if not actually moving. Second, there is a reduced expectation of privacy stemming from its use as a licensed motor vehicle subject to a range of police regulation inapplicable to a fixed dwelling. At least in these circumstances, the overriding societal interests in effective law enforcement justify an immediate search before the vehicle and its occupants become unavailable.
Although an RV or motorhome has some of the characteristics of a fixed residence, it is 1) readily mobile and capable of being moved to evade law enforcement and 2) there is a reduced expectation of privacy because it is licensed to operate on the highway and “subject to extensive regulation and inspection.”
This means that, in most cases, a recreational vehicle can be searched by the police without a search warrant:
- With your consent,
- If the police have probable cause to search under the automobile exception, or
- If there is another applicable exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement (search incident to arrest, inventory exception, inevitable discovery exception, plain view, exigent circumstances, or a “Terry search” based on reasonable suspicion).
What if Police Want to Search Your RV Residence?
What if your RV is your home and you live in it? Does that change the analysis?
If You Live in Your RV on the Road
If you live in your RV “on the road,” traveling from one location to the next and staying at temporary RV parks, parking lots, or even in the woods, the courts will probably treat your motorhome as a motor vehicle that is “readily mobile” and not require law enforcement to get a warrant before searching.
If You Live in Your RV in a Permanent Location
But what if you live in your RV in a permanent RV park or other location where other permanent residences are located?
The Court made this distinction in Carney:
When a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes — temporary or otherwise — the two justifications for the vehicle exception come into play…
If you are living in your RV, and it is parked “stationary in a place… regularly used for residential purposes,” then the automobile exception no longer applies to your motorhome. Unless another Fourth Amendment exception applies, the police must get your consent or get a warrant before they can enter and search your residence.
An RV is not a stationary residence by virtue of the fact that it is a motorhome – if you are driving the RV down the road or if it is capable of being driven, the automobile exception will most likely apply and police do not need to go get a search warrant before searching if they have probable cause.
On the other hand, if your RV is a stationary home, or if your RV is parked at your home (see Arizona v. Gant), police need consent, a search warrant, or an applicable exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
If you have been charged with a crime based on an illegal search and seizure, get an experienced criminal defense attorney on your case immediately. We will investigate your case, get your case dismissed, negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to you, or try your case to a jury.