If you’re planning on living in your car, chances are that you’ve heard about the dreaded door knock by police.
Maybe this is something that has got you worried, and possibly even second-guessing whether you should try sleeping in a car at all.
Here’s the truth…door knocks are a reality of the nomad life. And while they don’t happen every day, they definitely will happen eventually, especially the longer that you’re on the road.
Knowing this, it is vitally important that you understand how to handle the situation, as any encounter with law enforcement can spin out of control if not managed correctly.
Let’s jump in!
What is a Car Door Knock by Police?
As the name suggests, it is when you get a door knock (or window tap) by a cop while you’re in your car. It’s most common during night hours, though, it can also happen in the daytime.
Why Does a Car Door Knock by Police Happen?
The reasons can vary, and you may never know why. However, here are some of the most common culprits…
- You are parked someplace you shouldn't be
- You have been parked someplace too long
- The cops might be suspicious of your vehicle
- A concerned citizen/business owner knows you're sleeping in your vehicle
- An altercation with someone may lead to the cops being called
- Your license might be suspended or you have an open warrant
What Should I do if I get a Door Knock by Police?
The most important thing above anything else is this…
Admittedly, it can be quite jarring and nerve-wracking being awoke at night, or startled by a police knock while you’re alone in your vehicle. Even more so if it has never happened to you.
Aside from remaining calm, the next thing to do is to assess the situation. Do not open your door or lower your window until you can reasonably confirm that it is indeed a law enforcement officer outside your vehicle.
Safety comes first, and you should never leave or open your vehicle up for a random stranger.
Once you are sure that you’re dealing with an actual cop, turn on the overhead dome light above your bed or the front seat (if you’re sitting in the car), and crack the window a few inches.
Next, politely and calmly address the officer and ask if anything is wrong.
In most cases (but not always), they will tell you why they knocked and ask for your i.d.
Before reaching for your i.d., tell the officer that you’ll be doing so, as you want to avoid making sudden movements during a tense situation. Once retrieved, hand over your credentials.
If asked, do not lie about living in your vehicle. This can very well turn a benign, routine situation into something worse. The first time I got a door knock I told the officer that I was a traveling writer/photographer, and I commonly move through the northeast while sleeping in the car…which is pretty much the truth.
After running your information in their system - provided you don’t have an expired license, a warrant out for your arrest, etc. - the cop will return to your car and give you the skinny.
The vast majority of times, if you’re simply parked where you shouldn’t be, the officer will tell you that you must vacate the premises. If it’s late at night, you’re uncomfortable driving after dark, or for any other reason, you can kindly ask if you can stay until the morning. Lots of considerate cops will allow this. If they do not…
You obviously must move on to someplace else.
If you must move and are in an unfamiliar area - especially if it’s late at night - ask the officer if he or she knows of any safe places to stay until daybreak. They know their patrol areas like the back of their hands, and you might get a tip about a great spot.
One cop even told a female friend of mine that she could sleep in her car until the morning in the police station parking lot!
Please remember this…
Sleeping in a vehicle is not a crime or illegal. At all.
What gets most people in trouble is parking where they shouldn’t, or overstaying their welcome. Both of these matters are technically crimes, albeit very minor ones.
Issues like this usually fall under local ordinance laws, or because you’re parked on private property (a big box store parking lot, etc.) and aren’t following the posted signage.
If you ever get a door knock by 5-0 and follow these rules, either nothing will happen and you can go about your merry way, or you’ll be asked to find another area to park. It’s that simple. However…
It doesn’t always work out this way, unfortunately.
Sometimes you might come across an overly aggressive cop or an officer who needs to make his ticket quota. And instead of getting a warning or being asked to move your car, you’ll instead get a summons.
If this happens, don’t get combative! It will make the situation worse. You don’t want your car being towed or to end up in cuffs. Instead, write it off as a lesson learned, and choose your sleeping spots more carefully in the future.
Most of these same rules apply when dealing with private security guards. Even though they have little to no authority compared to law enforcement officers, they CAN call a cop, which will open up an unnecessary can of worms. Be calm and civil. But do not hand over your i.d. credentials if asked, as they don't have the right to ask for them. If you're prodded to leave a certain area, just move on to prevent any headaches.
Things NOT to do if you get a Door Knock by Police!
Ok, these are all pretty obvious. But sometimes when we’re in an emotional state we don’t think rationally, or at all.
Being agitated, nervous, and angry can lead us to display behavior that isn’t our norm. So…
Be extra aware if you ever get a knock, and follow the advice below…
- Don't lie
- Don't display erratic behavior
- Don't be hostile or mean (the cop is simply doing his/her job)
- Don't make threats or try to flex your authority
- Don't pretend you're sleeping, or that you don't hear the knock
- Don't try to evade handing over your i.d., if asked for it
Last Minute Tips
- Always have your license, registration, and car insurance in an EASILY accessible place. Having to fumble around for it in the middle of the night during a cop knock is a pain in the ass, and makes you look scattered
- If you come across a suspicious or hostile cop, and you're on Instagram, Youtube, have a blog, etc. that details your nomad journey, show it to them. Many will get a kick out of it, and it will help reduce any threat/suspicion level
- NEVER have any illegal substances or open containers of alcohol in your vehicle. Even if you weren't using them at the time, it looks really bad, and will turn a minor situation into a major one
- NEVER consent to a vehicle search, if asked...especially if you did nothing wrong. Unlike handing over your i.d., this is a totally unreasonable request, and police legally need a search warrant to access your vehicle
- ALWAYS read the signage in an area before you park and/or sleep for the night. If "no loitering", "no long-term parking", or any other similar verbiage is used, it's best to move to another spot. Read more about this here...
- Even if you're parked in a vehicle dweller friendly area, avoid having people see you sleeping in your car. For most average citizens, this is a highly unusual activity (especially at night), and will frequently lead to police being called with a door knock
- NEVER leave large sums of cash in your vehicle. Troopers, highway patrol, sheriffs, and cops CAN confiscate it if your vehicle is ever searched with probable suspicion. Even if that "probable suspicion" is based on pure bunk. Here's just two links to stories explaining how this racket works...
Final Thoughts on Car Door Knocks by Police
While it can certainly be scary getting a door knock by a cop if you live in a vehicle, as I said earlier…
There is NOTHING illegal about living or sleeping in a vehicle.
What will get you tripped up is parking someplace where you shouldn’t...especially on private property. As you now know though, if you handle the situation in the correct manner, in most instances, either nothing will happen, or you’ll simply be asked to move, if your record is clear. In some rare situations you may get a summons.
Preparing for a situation in advance, knowing your rights, and dealing with circumstances in a calm, level-headed manner will prevent a minor infraction (if one exists) from turning into full-blown debacle.
Be proud to be a nomad. Our numbers are incredibly large now, and this will work in your favor, as most law enforcement officers are accustomed to our way of life. Police have bigger problems to deal with, and provided we’re on the straight & narrow, most fair-minded cops could care less about how or where we choose to sleep.
LIVE WISELY, LIVE WELL!