Every police encounter is different, so you should always read up on your local laws, rules, regulations, and ordinances because things vary by state. The suggestions made here have been tried and tested in real-life scenarios hundreds of times with success.
It’s important to realize that the vast majority of encounters with police go well. Most officers are reasonable and understanding people. These tips are the combined wisdom from years' worth of RV, van, and skoolie-residing people across the US.
1. The moment you hear the knock on your door and the police department introduces themselves, you should loudly and calmly tell them, “Hold on, I’m coming out.”
We suggest installing a peephole in your RV door if it doesn't already have one. You want to be able to see that it is, in fact, the police and not someone falsely claiming to be law enforcement. If you’re boondocking or outside of city limits, it would be strange for law enforcement to be knocking on your door, so you want to be able to see who is outside before opening the door.
2. If you can, we suggest having a camera running behind you and pointing it to the door so it records the encounter. You can use a GoPro, phone camera, etc.
3. Always have your ID readily available, and let the officer know that a camera is running in the background. Remember, by the time the officer knocks on your door, they have already run your license plate. They will have performed a wants-and-warrants check to determine if your vehicle is stolen or properly registered, if you are licensed, and if you have insurance (in California, insurance records and information are in DMV computers). Therefore, if you have your license ready, it will confirm what the officer already knows from running your plates, putting them at ease.
4. Before you open the door, make sure to hide any questionable paraphernalia you have lying around, including anything in the direct eyesight of the officer that might be considered questionable. You don't get a second chance at a first impression, so make it count.
While weed is legal in some states, it’s not yet legal in every state. It’s easier to put away the papers, pipe, bong, etc. in a cupboard before opening the door than to have the officer see it. The same goes for any other type of paraphernalia that a cop could remotely find questionable. Even if you are completely justified in having it, it’s better to avoid the situation in the first place.
5. Before opening the door, ensure that you are dressed decently. Whether we like it or not, first impressions matter. Take the time to put on a clean shirt or jacket before answering. The cops might be here to inspect a suspicious-looking vehicle because some nosy neighbor or business owner called them. There is no point in coming to the door looking unkempt or disheveled. Give yourself the best chance for success by putting on a clean shirt or sweater before opening the door.
6. When you open the door, always have your hands visible and let the officer know that you are about to open the door. There is no need for fast or shifty movements.
6. When you open the door, always have your hands visible, and let the officer know that you are about to open the door. There is no need for fast or shifty movements.
7. Say hi to the officer, and let them speak, because odds are they will have lots of questions. You don't need to volunteer any information without being asked.
8. The most common question the police officer asks is, do you live in this vehicle, or do you reside in the vehicle? Our research suggests that you should never admit to living in the vehicle. There is no definition for what “living” in the vehicle actually means. Rather, it's advisable to say something along the lines of, “This is my vehicle, yes” and just leave it at that. You do not need to go further.
9. Police might also ask to search your vehicle. The research has shown that the best answer to this question is to say, “No, I do not give consent to search, sorry officer.” At this point, if they try to push his way in or do something illegal, you will have it on camera.
10. The most common reason, by far, that the officer is knocking on your vehicle is because they want you to move it. Odds are some local resident or business has called and asked them to get you to move. The online consensus is that you simply agree and move your vehicle. At this point, you will know that your current location is not a viable long-term parking spot, and you don’t create further headaches for yourself.
If, however, you are parked at a 72-hour parking spot, and you’ve been there significantly less than 72 hours, then you’re well within your rights to let the police know you’ve only been here for a certain amount of time and that you still have 48 hours, etc. to be here. This might invite some headaches, and we always suggest moving your vehicle, but if you are in the right, it can be worth pushing that fact.
11. Another tip: if the knock on your door comes at nighttime, the consensus is that not acknowledging the officer is the best way to go. Simply keeping silent and pretending to be asleep is the best move. Police are not allowed to break in. As long as you’re parked in a legal parking area, just sleep until the morning.
Here are a few things to remember that a former law enforcement officer from California posted:
- Most officers don't care that you are living out of your RV. If officers check out vans and RVs, and you are parked in a big town, the officer is almost always banging on your door because someone complained. Understanding WHY the officer is there helps make things easier for everyone.
- Generally, you can be sure that the officer knows who you are. Departments and shifts know the regulars, including those who are living out of a van, RV, or skoolie. RVs and vans are more obvious and identifiable than homeless people living in tents.
- Most officers do NOT want to hassle you. Cops like a peaceful shift. Chasing after bad guys - really bad guys - is what officers like to do. Banging on RV doors and checking out residents is not on an officer's list of things to accomplish. So, yes, if an officer is at your door, you can be fairly certain that this is a situation neither party wants to be in.
- Unfortunately, if the officer is responding to a complaint, they have to take action on it. You will likely have to move your vehicle. Do so voluntarily; this way, the officer is happy, the complainant is, too.
Above all else try and keep the inquiry from escalating. You don't want to get hassled, shot, or killed, and you don't want to be arrested and jailed. Even if the officer is being a complete jerk, be nice and cooperate. Don't be a smart ass. And as officers say between themselves, don't flunk the attitude test. (This is the most difficult thing to do if you are intelligent and don't like to be hassled by an officer who is clearly in the wrong).
It takes a strong person to swallow your pride and not get into it with the officer. And yes, officers do get your innuendo or snide remarks. For example, a fast way to flunk the attitude test is to show the officer you are writing down their name and badge number. I assure you, that instantly puts the officer in a bad mood. At the minimum, they will write you a citation; at worst, they will look for a way to put you under arrest and have your vehicle impounded.
Finally, remember that officers are really on edge when stopping vehicles, responding to complaints, or investigating a situation. Nowadays, especially with all the complaints against the police officers, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Officers have mere seconds to size up a situation and, for example, determine if the gun laying on your RV's dining table is real or an Airsoft replica. Be as helpful and cooperative as possible without sacrificing your safety and rights.