Warrantless Motor Home Searches OK : Engines Make Them More Like Cars Than Houses, Justices Rule

Associated Press

The Supreme Court has ruled that, when it comes to criminal investigations, a motor home is more like a car than a house.

By a 6-3 vote, the court ruled today that police officers investigating possible crimes may search a motor home without a court search warrant.

The court reinstated a San Diego man’s marijuana possession conviction, which had been overturned because the California Supreme Court considered his motor home a house.

The court’s ruling applies to motor homes that contain engines. The court did not decide whether stationary mobile homes--for example, one that is elevated on blocks--should be treated as a car or a permanent home.


Exception Made in 1925

The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment generally requires police to obtain a court warrant before conducting any search, but since 1925 the Supreme Court has made an exception for automobiles. In today’s ruling, the court said a motor home, even when it is stationary, is readily mobile and therefore police should have greater latitude to inspect the motor home.

Also, the court said, there is a reduced expectation of privacy because motor homes are capable of traveling on highways.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, writing for the court, said: “These reduced expectations of privacy derive not from the fact that the area to be searched is in plain view, but from the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways. The public is fully aware that it is accorded less privacy in its automobiles because of this compelling governmental need for regulation.”


Marijuana for Sex

The case stemmed from an investigation of Charles R. Carney, who prosecutors said was exchanging marijuana for sex with young boys in downtown San Diego. He was arrested May 31, 1979, after police, without a warrant, searched his motor home.

Carney pleaded no contest to a charge of possessing marijuana for sale and was placed on three years’ probation.

But the California Supreme Court said the warrantless search violated Carney’s constitutional rights against unreasonable police conduct.