How to Cope With Traffic Stops and Asset Forfeiture


One of the questions that comes up all the time is the question of how to handle traffic stops  and should we be worried about asset forfeiture? That’s very relevant to vandwellers because we spend more time on the road than most people and are also carrying everything we own in the world in the vehicle with us–and sometimes that includes fairly large sums of money. So how do we carry money and documents in a vehicle and not risk asset forfeiture?

Let me say first thing that the risk to any of us is very low and the chance of you ever needing anything in this post is very unlikely but with asset forfeiture in the news I want to at least address it. Here is a very good quote from the ACLU explaining what it is and how it works:

“Police abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws has shaken our nation’s conscience. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.

“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”

We’ve had a lot of discussion about this on my forum, and one of the members there is a retired police officer and he wrote in this excellent post explaining the laws in his former state and explaining how to best avoid being a victim of unjust asset forfeiture. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d suggest reading the whole thread, but if not this post is found here:

“For an officer to find money, they’d have to initiate a search which generally requires a warrant, unless you give permission for a search. There are issues of officer safety which – depending on the state and circumstances – can permit the officer to check the passenger compartment near the occupants for weapons.

On a traffic stop, which is generally when you’ll be talking to an officer, you have to provide a license. It’s reasonable he ask questions to confirm you’re identity. ID photos aren’t the greatest, and information – such as addresses – often change. So confirming ID and information on a license is a reasonable request. You are not required to answer questions, but answering these makes things go more smoothly, and shows you are cooperating. Answering any other questions is up to you. Permitting a search of your vehicle is up to you. (Don’t do it!!!!)

It’s the officer’s job to ask questions. You’d be surprised how often a question like, “Do you have any drugs in your car?” Gets an answer like “Well, I got a little weed here.”  Often, the questions are just casual and part of the officers Standard Operating Procedure. If they don’t ask, they don’t get info. When someone says ‘No’, the automatic follow up question is, “Do you mind if I check? ” A very good answer to that is “Not today officer, I’d just prefer to get on my way’. There have been a lot of successful – and substantial – drug interdiction’s completed because officers asked a series of simple questions.

About Asset Forfeiture – an officer cannot legally seize your assets just because you have a lot of money.  If he finds money and drugs, or illegal weapons, money can be taken as evidence in a trafficking charge.  The legal assumption is if you have a certain quantity of drugs, they’re for sale and not just for personal consumption. The easy solution to that is don’t carry drugs and lots of money. Or any other contraband. Problem solved.

If you carry money in a locked container in the vehicle, secure the container in a part of the car you can’t reasonably reach without leaving the vehicle, or at least the front seat.  Under the back seat for instance. If the vehicle is ever searched without a warrant, you are not required to unlock the compartment. Just advise, “It contains personal items – nothing illegal “- and you don’t wish to open it. He may try to wheedle you a bit – “If there’s nothing illegal, why won’t you open it?” – but just remain politely firm. Often he’s just going through the motions.

The only way an officer can legally get into a locked container, without your permission, is with a search warrant from a judge, and he needs reasonable suspicion of a crime to get that such as he sees something, smells something, or you say something that sounds like an admission. Even if the driver of the car is arrested for something, the car can be inventoried before being towed off the roadway or over public property, but they cannot search into locked areas of the car or locked containers without a warrant. If there is reasonable suspicion, they can get a warrant while the car is on the impound lot, then do a complete search. An inventory of property in a towed vehicle is not a search, but contraband found in an inventory can be used as a basis for charges.

A lot of info you may never need.  Short answer- keep money locked in a container that is secured to the vehicle somehow.  Mine has a cable system looped though the rear seat frame. With proper tools, the cable could be cut and the box removed but it would take a thief time. It prevents the box from being casually removed for any reason. Make it so it’s not visible – under the rear seat, for example.  Politely refuse to answer questions not relevant to the stop, and don’t give permission for searches. Don’t offer to unlock locked containers. Just advise it’s personal, or business related material, and there’s nothing illegal inside. If you want to be more forthcoming, that’s fine, but not necessary. No need to extend the conversation.

Keeping transactional records with cash is a good idea and will help alleviate any suspicion should an officer get into the locked box by whatever means. Also remember, once the officer concludes the reason for a traffic stop, he cannot detain you further. He hands you a ticket, a warning, or says “I’m just giving you a warning,” the reason for that stop is over. If he continues asking questions, politely ask, “Excuse me officer, but am I free to go?” The answer should be ,”yes”. Officers have a reasonable amount of time to conclude a traffic stop. They cannot extend that stop for investigative purposes without reasonable suspicion – the smell of marijuana, for example. But they must provide the reasons for extending the stop to you and, ultimately, to a judge.

Hope this info helps.  But also remember, cops are human and make mistakes. There’s a lot to know, and no one remembers everything. Search and seizure should be something every officer has down pat, but not always. Also, some shouldn’t have the badge they’re wearing. Just don’t provide them with any type of justification that can be used against you. Firm, but polite. You’re probably being recorded. The officer knows this as well. If the officer makes a mistake, and conducts an illegal search, that can be handled later in court. Yea, it can be really inconvenient for you, but still don’t act in a manner that provokes and can be used against you. Best advice I can offer.”

How to Handle Traffic Stops

I’m not a cop or lawyer so I’m not qualified to advise you, but I found an excellent article on what to do during traffic stops so I advise you to read it and follow his basic rules, especially since they agree with the advise given above by a former cop. Read the article here:

Here are his three basic rules quoted from that article:

  1. “Be polite and respectful.  A bit of class and respect will take you far in life, and it will make the next steps easier for you.
  2. Verbally resist demands.  Never, ever resist physically, but do resist verbally and respectfully until it becomes clear you’ll be arrested if you don’t comply.
  3. Do not answer questions. No matter what an officer tells you, you are never compelled to speak to the police or answer their questions without a lawyer present. You may think that being helpful and answering questions (even friendly ones) can help your cause. You’re wrong.”

Basically, after giving him your license, registration and proof of insurance you don’t answer any of his questions unless they relate directly to the reason he stopped you. Every time he tells you to do something you ask him why and then do it in a way to thwart his next step. You never answer any of his questions. Refuse in a polite and friendly manner and tone but refuse all the same. This sentence should be your response to his every question not directly related to the traffic stop:

“Officer, I respectfully choose to not answer any questions today.”

“Early in your interaction would be a good time to tell the officer you respectfully choose not to answer questions today. He’ll probably be annoyed, but that’s life!

If at any time during your stop you feel pressured to answer a question, don’t. You are protected by The Constitution’s 5th Amendment from testifying against or incriminating yourself. You cannot get in trouble for refusing to answer a question.

It’s very important that you do not ever lie to a police officer, so the best option is to always politely decline to answer. I cannot stress enough how awkward this will feel. You may be made to think that you’re digging yourself into a lot of trouble, but you aren’t.

Not answering is the safest and smartest way for you to handle questions from the police even if you have nothing to hide.”

If the officer asks you to step outside your car, take these actions:

“Once you leave your car, there are a few very important steps to take to protect and clearly communicate your rights:

  1. Roll your window all the way up.
  2. Lock the doors.
  3. As you exit, say very clearly to the officer: “I do not consent to any searches of me or my property.”

The courts have ruled that a traffic stop can only go on so long before it becomes an unreasonable search and seizure, so there is legal limit to how long you can be pulled over on the side of the road. Since you aren’t answering any of his questions, all he legally can do is write you a ticket or arrest you.

“This phrase is this most important one that you will need to remember any time you’re being stopped by the police:”

“Officer, am I being detained, or am I free to go?”

“Hopefully, any traffic stop you’re involved in will not require it, but this simple question can make everything a lot more clear for you, and will force the officer to get to the point rather than continue to ask probing and escalating questions.

Why does this work? Because for an officer to legally detain you, he must have probable cause that you have committed or are about to commit a crime. Granted, “probable cause” is a pretty vague requirement and easy for a determined cop to get around, but asking the question, “Am I being detained?” can save you time and trouble.

In any interaction with the police, you are either in one state or the other: being detained or free to go. There is no in between.”

If you broke a traffic law, it’s reasonable he detain you for that stop, but if you haven’t done anything else, then he’s bluffing and searching for something. By asking if you are detained, you’re calling his bluff: put-up or shut-up. If you’re ever told that you’re being detained, your very next words should be that you want a lawyer and then not another word.

It’s very unlikely you will ever need any of this info, but it’s better to have it and never need it, than to one day need it and not have it.

I’m making Videos on my good friends James and Kyndal’s YouTube Channel. See them here:

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I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

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