Legal Myths, Part I: Is a Warrant Necessary to Search a Sleeper Berth?

Do you want to stay informed and get clarity on many of the legal issues that can lead to confusion for employees working in the transportation industry? Consider subscribing to our YouTube channel (LINK) or follow us on Facebook (LINK) to stay updated with our video series on these legal topics. Visit this link to view a video covering this post's topic.

One of our video series addresses “legal myths” that are often believed by people working in the transportation industry. The first of our videos in this series addresses the question of particular importance to those working in the field of trucking: Can a sleeper berth be searched without a warrant?

If your immediate response to this question is “no,” you may be surprised. The Fourth Amendment is the foundation that drivers might turn to as support for their belief that a warrant is necessary for a search to be conducted on one’s sleeper berth. Indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment does protect the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Given this explicit language in the U.S. Constitution, one might think a relatively unique situation would be created for over-the-road drivers who perform long, multi-day hauls. Given that many drivers can live out of their trucks for weeks and even months on end, the idea might arise that one’s truck should therefore count as one’s “home” for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.

However reasonable a driver might think that is, the case law does not support this expectation. First, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t provide a blanket protection against seizures. Rather, what it guarantees is that your “persons, houses, papers, and effects” are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, and “probable cause” must be established before a warrant can be issued.

More to the point, since a sleeper berth has not been legally defined to count as a “home” under the Fourth Amendment, drivers are unable to draw on that constitutional amendment in arguing that their sleeper berth cannot searched without a warrant. Since it is not considered a home, probable cause does not need to be established before it can be searched.

Prior case law has found that no warrant is necessary for searching other mobile home-like units that people may live in for extended periods, even indefinitely, like Winnebagos and motorhomes. Courts have been unwilling to construe these mobile homes as protected by the Fourth Amendment, in large part because it could create significant evidentiary obstacles—namely, important evidence could be stored in the unit, a litigant could deny access until a warrant was issued, and in the meantime the evidence could be transported to another jurisdiction before the warrant had been issued or the underlying litigation concluded.

In sum, even if you have been living extensively in it, your sleeper berth is not protected from warrantless searches under the Fourth Amendment. This can come as a surprise, which is why it is part of our video series seeking to dispel common myths people in the transportation industry have about the law.

Are you an employee facing a legal problem, or who believes your rights have been violated? Contact us at (952) 657-5780 if you’d like to speak with an expert who will be happy to talk with you about your possible options for pursuing legal action.

What Am I Seeking to Get From A Lawsuit? Remedies Available under STAA

The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (“STAA”) contains protections for employees in the transportation industry who file complaints about safety-related issues, hours-of-service violations, and other federal commercial motor vehicle violations. More specifically, STAA gives employees a private right of action when their employer retaliates to such whistleblowing with an adverse action.

As discussed in our previous blog post (LINK), both STAA, which is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the Department of Labor, and Department of Transportation regulations of the Federal Motor Carrier Services Administration offer employees ways to report employer misconduct and safety risks.

If you are in a situation where you believe your employer is violating safety regulations, especially if you believe you’ve been retaliated against for complaining about those violations or refusing to drive in violation of the law, you might be considering legal options. If this is the situation you’re in, an important first step for you to consider is what result you are hoping to achieve by pursuing legal action.

If your sole goal is to expose these safety issues through an investigation, it’s likely that an FMCSA grievance may be your best route. However, if you have a personal grievance because your employer has also retaliated against you, a STAA complaint provides you with a more expanded array of remedy options.

First, if you pursue a claim under STAA, your situation might permit you to seek damages for back pay. If you have reason to believe you were demoted to lower-paying routes in retaliation for complaining about safety issues, then you might be able to recoup the difference. Or, if the retaliation you faced was that you were fired, then damages could include lost wages at your usual date starting from the date of termination.

Second, while the value of this remedy varies based on the workplace situation, one of the remedies available under STAA is reinstatement. If your workplace has become too hostile, or if you decide the safety issues with your employer are too significant and recurring, then it is likely reinstatement will not ultimately be a remedy that you would value. It is possible, however, in many situations for employees to be able to continue to work with the employer that they have filed a complaint against. Indeed, if your employer wrongfully terminated you, if have looked but are unable to find similar employment, and if your employer is found liable under STAA, your back pay damages begin on the date of termination and can continue indefinitely until your employer makes you a bona fide offer of reinstatement.

Third, it is often the case that employees will want to move on from the employers they bring STAA complaints against. However, employees can be placed in a difficult situation when trying to find employment if they fear that their employer will “blacklist” them by putting damaging information on their DAC report, or by speaking poorly of the employee if the employer is contacted during the job application process. Remedies available under STAA can address both of these situations. If your employer is found liable in a STAA action, and you choose to look for work elsewhere, remedies can include an order instructing your employer to provide a neutral employment reference, and they can also include having such negative information moved from records kept by organizations like Hire Right, Inc.

Fourth, if you are successful in your STAA claim, you might also be entitled to compensatory damages for pain and suffering. An unexpected and undeserved termination, or other adverse treatment at work, can have devastating impacts on an employee’s mental and physical health, on family life, on one’s financial security and savings, and so on. In addition to the possibility of being compensated for such emotional and physical distress itself, it may also be possible to recover expenses for services like therapy.

Finally, in exceptional cases, plaintiffs in STAA cases might be awarded punitive damages. These damages might be awarded when an employer’s actions are determined to be especially “egregious,” or their violations are systematic, or they were found to be knowingly violating the law with cavalier disregard. It is worth pointing out that many people overestimate their ability to recover punitive damages—they may have been unjustly and unfairly treated by their employer, and may reasonably be quite upset with the employer, believing that any court would be similarly appalled that their employer is an especially bad actor. This may or may not be the case for you if you pursue a STAA action against your employer, but only a relatively small number of plaintiffs have been successful in recovering punitive damages under the statute.

What is important is that there is an array of options you can pursue if you are concerned that your employer is acting in violation of STAA or FMCSA regulations. You can pursue an FMCSA grievance if your goal in an investigation, or if you have a personal grievance because you’ve been subject to retaliation, a STAA action can provide a venue for seeking compensation to make you whole by way of back pay for lost wages, compensation for emotional distress, neutral employment references, scrubbing of information from DAC reports, and potentially punitive awards to punish or dissuade defendants from particularly bad actions.

If you believe you have been the victim of retaliation by your employer for complaining about safety-related issues protected under STAA, give us a call ((952) 657-5780) and we’ll be happy to talk with you about your options!