#VanLife and the Right to Privacy

Sabrina Safrin - Rutgers Law School
Vol. 57
Page 1

Your home enjoys the highest level of Fourth Amendment protection against government intrusion; your vehicle, the least. So what happens when your home is your car? This question affects over a million Americans who currently live in vans, trailers, and other vehicles. And this is just the beginning. Wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, and other climate change disasters will displace an unprecedented number of Americans. Inevitably, legions of these climate refugees will live in vehicles. Many already do.

Vehicular residences are filled with personal and private items typically found in a home. A knock on the window followed by a police search can reveal almost everything about the inhabitant. And the meager protections that vehicle dwellers enjoy under extant Fourth Amendment doctrine are weakening even further as states and municipalities criminalize vehicle-dwelling practices. If living in a vehicle is a crime, then even pillows, drawers of clothing and chests of food are evidence of a crime, opening the door to all manner of government intrusion. With states rushing to criminalize abortion, pregnant vehicle dwellers and their partners and allies are particularly at risk. They face the prospect of unregulated searches of their most sensitive and potentially incriminating personal medical information.

This Essay brings to the fore the striking privacy vulnerability of the U.S.’s burgeoning vehicle-dwelling population. It argues that mass vehicle dwelling will require courts to recalibrate their Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to better protect vehicular residents. It provides the first analysis of fifty years of federal and state case law on searches of vehicular homes. It then identifies four areas where doctrine can — and should — provide greater privacy protections after decades of expanded police power to search vehicles. The Essay concludes with recommendations for how courts can enhance vehicle dwellers’ privacy rights. Even these may not be enough. The “VanLife” fringe is our future. A looming population of climate nomads may make the automobile exception to the warrant requirement unworkable and dangerous for a free society and may finally occasion its jettisoning altogether.

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