In my last video I featured the case of a Michigan man currently rotting in a West Virginia jail for the high crime of traveling through West Virginia with a few hemp plants, possibly marijuana, I don’t know. A video of him refusing to consent to police entering his RV was shown in a Youtube video by the Real News Network, highlighting the actions of the Milton Police Department (which is in Cabell County, WV), including the fact that they take in a huge amount of fines as a result of their policing, despite having only around 2,500 residents. This begs the question, first of all, in general, do police need a warrant to enter, search, seize, etc., an RV or motorhome? Or is it just like regular automobiles, where only probable cause is required, rather than a warrant? Here’s the video, and below I’ll post an explanation of the applicable law:
Do police need a warrant to search an RV?
The Fourth Amendment generally requires the police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search. There is a well-established exception to this requirement, however, for automobile searches. See, e.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). Under this exception, “[i]f a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S.Ct. 2485, 135 L.Ed.2d 1031 (1996). Thus, once police have probable cause, they may search “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” Id.
In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390, 105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985), the Supreme Court held that a mobile home, on the facts presented, was more characteristic of an automobile than a fixed residence.
The Court did look to the nature of the location where the vehicle was discovered, but only to ascertain whether the vehicle itself was, in an ontological sense, in use as a “movable vessel” or as a fixed residence. Hence, the Court’s reference to a “place not regularly used for residential purposes,” Carney, 471 U.S. at 392, 105 S.Ct. 2066 — from which the police would be less likely to infer that the object was residential in nature — served as a guidepost to determine, whether the object encountered was a vehicle or a residence.
Summed up: was the RV on a public road, or situated such that it is reasonable to conclude that the RV was not being used as a residence?
1. Is the vehicle readily mobile? Absent an immediate search and seizure, could it have quickly been moved beyond reach of the police? Was the vehicle licensed “to operate on public streets” and subject to inspection as a motor vehicle?
2. Was the vehicle so situated that an objective observer would conclude that it was eing used not as a residence, but as a vehicle?
3. The search still must be reasonable under the circumstances. Was the search that occurred otherwise reasonable as would have been approved by a neutral judge had the officer applied for a search warrant?
If the vehicle can be categorized somewhere within the realm of a residence, rather than an automobile, then a warrant may be required. As with many search and seizure issues, the result will turn on the particular facts of each case. Or they should anyways…..