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

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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.