What Van/Rvers Should Know About the Fourth Amendment

By Rachel Puryear

If you live or travel within the United States, the Fourth Amendment might not be something you think about often – that is, until you have to.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution – and its corresponding case law – governs rights regarding police searches and seizures. That is, under what circumstances law enforcement can search your property and dwelling, and obtain evidence of a crime. When is probable cause enough, and when do they need a warrant?

Van and RV life – while indeed charmed in so many ways – does present its legal complications, at times.

For one thing, search and seizure laws are written and interpreted with the assumption that people will typically live in houses and apartments; and that moving vehicles are for getting around, rather than doubling as dwellings.

For another thing, those who live a mobile lifestyle and travel frequently will cross state and county lines, as well as international borders, more often than most other people will. This means being subject to frequently changing sets of laws and jurisdictions.

Arrest Warrant with hand holding paper next to police officer.

One thing that anyone who spends time in an RV or van dreads is attracting the attention of police – especially when you’re far from home, and may not be familiar with local customs or know anyone in the area who could help you out in a jam.

You might know that police (usually) cannot search a home without a warrant, but can search a vehicle without a warrant – for the latter, it’s so long as they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.

However, given that an RV or travel van is both a home (even if part-time) and a vehicle for many people, how do search and seizure laws apply to people dwelling within them?

The Supreme Court of the United States settled this matter in a case known as California v. Carney, in 1985. This case went all the way to the SCOTUS after police believed that the defendant had exchanged sex for drugs in his motor home, came a-knocking, and searched his motor home without a warrant. The defendant was busted when the cops found marijuana for sale in his motor home.

The Court reasoned that an RV was more like a vehicle than a stationary home, given that someone could easily drive away if the police had to first go and get a warrant to search them. The Court further emphasized that a person’s expectation of privacy is much lower in an RV than in a stationary home.

Therefore, if you’re in a van or RV and travel around a lot, know that you don’t have the same Fourth Amendment protections as you would in a stationary home.

This is not at all intended to discourage or scare anyone out of more time on the road. However, it is instead meant to encourage road lifers to take proper precautions accordingly.

For instance – if you’re going to a marijuana fest in a state where it’s legalized, and you take some with you when you leave, you might want to smoke it up before you cross into a state where it’s still criminalized.

In fact, that’s a good idea anyway. Remember that laws can change in different jurisdictions.

Also, note – police are allowed to take a closer look at anything that’s in plain view – that is, readily visible from the outside – without a warrant. Therefore, know that if your van or RV has windows without curtains, police can peer inside the windows and further inspect anything they can see from there.

Accordingly, you may not always be able to avoid getting pulled over or having an officer knock on your door – but you can be knowledgeable about how laws apply to you in your vehicle, and also be prepared in case the police want to inquire further.


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