If Your Home is a Re-Modeled School Bus, Do Police Need a Warrant to Search It?

November 1, 2017

An unconventional housing trend has arisen amongst millennials who want to travel the nation in a mobile home, but cannot afford the $50,000 to mid-$100,000s+ it costs to buy an RV. Their solution is a “skoolie,” or “a school bus that has been purchased by a private owner and converted for some purpose other than hauling people around, such as RVing.” However, a school bus is a vehicle, and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement established in Carroll v. U.S. states that automobiles may be searched by law enforcement without a warrant, provided that the officers have probable cause to believe that the automobile in question contains either illegal contraband, fruits of a crime, instrumentalities used to commit a crime, or evidence. The question, then, is whether skoolies are going to be considered a home for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment protection from search and seizure, or whether they are going to be considered a type of mobile home that falls within the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
A standard school bus is 34-feet long and capable of creating 200 square feet of livable space. With a starting price around $3,000, individuals can purchase the buses, clear them out, and remake them into a fully-functional mobile home, including a working kitchen and bathroom, for around $30,000. At $33,000 total on average and with diesel engines that can last over one million miles if they are well-maintained, well above the average RV, it is not surprising that skoolies are rising in popularity.

However, if the automobile exception were applied to a skoolie, it would mean that someone’s home could be searched based solely on probable cause.

That is a far lower standard than a traditional residence, and creates major privacy concerns. Some steps can be taken, though, based on United States Supreme Court precedent established in California v. Carney, to make a skoolie more likely to be considered a home under the Fourth Amendment rather than a vehicle. Before stating those steps, a brief recap of Carney is required.
In California v. Carney, the Supreme Court held that a Dodge Mini Mobile home, a van with a camper attached on the back, fell within the automobile exception. The two main factors that weighed into the court’s decision to consider the mobile home a vehicle rather than a residence for purposes of the Fourth Amendment were that (1) the van had a working engine and was readily mobile; and (2) that the van was situated in a public parking lot, and thus objectively indicated that it was being used as a vehicle. What their opinion suggested is that when a mobile home is parked in a residential place and hooked up, the resulting lack of mobility and heightened expectation of privacy that is created weighs toward considering the mobile home like an actual home. What does this holding mean for skoolies?
While a skoolie is a bus and is thus always capable of moving, even when parked, there are ways to make it more likely that a skoolie will be considered a residence rather than a vehicle. First, and most importantly, owners need to park the skoolie somewhere residential, like an RV park. Some RV parks do not allow skoolies, creating the temptation to park in a public parking lot instead, but it is worth driving the extra distance to find a skoolie-friendly park. Parking somewhere residential reinforces that the mobile home is serving as a residence, and carries a heightened expectation of privacy. Secondly, owners should find a way to hook their skoolie up to the land while parked (ex. water line, electricity, sewage, etc.). Doing so lowers the perceived mobility of the bus, making it more likely to be considered a home. If skoolie owners take both of these steps, their mobile home is more likely to receive Fourth Amendment protection as a residence, providing them greater security and privacy.