RVers and the 4th Amendment
By Mark S. Nemeth  #45776

This article originally ran in the November/December 2002 issue of
Escapees magazine
Reprinted by permission

Home is where you park it! I've said it dozens of times, and I truly do believe it. My RV is my home, as surely as my house was before I sold it and hit the road. Most of us who have chosen to live in an RV consider the RV to be our home. After all, its where we live! However, in some cases, law enforcement officers or other security personnel will view our RV as a vehicle, rather than a home or dwelling. In the case of a motorhome or other RV, the context of the surroundings where the RV is parked play a large role in determining whether or not the RV will be considered a vehicle. Why is this important? Well, to explain, first I must refresh your memory on the Fourth Amendment:

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the power of the police to make arrests, search people and their property, and seize objects documents and contraband. The search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment are all about protecting personal privacy. Most people would agree that privacy is the freedom to decide which details of your life will be revealed to the public and which will be revealed only to those you authorize. To honor this freedom, the Fourth Amendment protects against "unreasonable" searches and seizures by state or federal law enforcement authorities.

However, the Fourth Amendment does permit searches and seizures that are considered reasonable. This means that the police may override your privacy concerns and conduct a search of your home, barn, car, truck, RV, boat or office. Typically, in order for a search to be reasonable, the police must have probable cause to believe they can find evidence that you committed a crime, and a judge must issue a search warrant. Typically, your home cannot be entered and searched unless a warrant is obtained.

Now, it gets interesting: Specific exceptions allow a search without a warrant if the particular circumstances justify the search. The rules for searching vehicles are one such exception: Vehicles may be searched without a warrant whenever the police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence. The reasons why no warrant is required for a vehicle search are:

If the police have probable cause to search a vehicle, all compartments and packages within the vehicle may be searched.

In a landmark case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, a number of precedents were set regarding this grey area in the law. It seems that a man was conducting illegal activities inside a motorhome parked in public parking lot. The police entered and searched his motorhome without warrant or consent and discovered illegal drugs inside. The man was arrested, and at his subsequent trial, his attorney attempted to get the case thrown out by claiming that the search was illegal. Since the man was living in the motorhome, it was a home, and could not legally be entered and searched without a warrant. The prosecution claimed that it was a vehicle and as such, could be searched without a warrant, on the basis of probable cause alone.

The Supreme Court's ruling, in part stated: Due to the manner in which the motorhome was being used, it was more a vehicle than a residence. Since it was readily mobile with only a turn of the ignition key and was “stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes, temporary or otherwise,” it was a “licensed motor vehicle subject to a range of police regulations inapplicable to a fixed dwelling.” The motorhome, in this case, was considered a vehicle and the legality of the original search was upheld.

There are also a number of laws and restrictions that apply only to motor vehicles. If you are “at home”, these rules don't apply. If you are “sitting in a vehicle”, they do! One example that comes immediately to my mind is the “open container” law that most states enforce. “Gee, officer, I'm just sitting in my house, having a beer”. If that officer is of the opinion that you are actually sitting in a vehicle, he could cite you for your open container.

I'm not writing this article to frighten you, or put you on the defensive: it is simply intended to point out that not everyone will view your RV as a home the way that you do.  Where your RV is parked, and the manner in which it is being used, directly affects the way it will be viewed by law enforcement officers and other folks. If you are parked in a public parking lot, or in some boondocking settings, you are most likely to be seen as a vehicle. If you are parked in a RV park, or on a buddy pad alongside a house, hooked up to electricity and water, you will most likely be seen as a home. This interpretation affects your rights and constitutional protections, and it is something that you should bear in mind. Even though you feel that you are comfortably within your own home, others may view you as being in a vehicle and react to you in that context. Appearances DO matter!

This page last updated on July 6, 2003