Looking for Contraband? This Vehicle Search Checklist Will Help.

September 7, 2022

Thoroughly searching a vehicle in a timely fashion, particularly under the pressure of being on the roadside during a traffic stop, can be a challenge given the myriad spots contraband of all kinds can be hidden. Having a systematic strategy for approaching your search can noticeably increase your odds of surfacing illicit things suspects don’t want you to find. Here is a list of areas the National Institute of Justice suggests checking during a vehicle search. Feel free to print this and keep it in your squad for reference during your next search.

[Editor’s noteBe sure to check out the NEW Calibre Press course, Tactics for Criminal Patrol: Drug Interdiction, Human Trafficking & Roadside Searches!]

Vehicle Search Checklist

LEVEL 1: PHYSICAL/HAND SEARCH OF AUTOMOBILES

1. Trunk Compartment (including behind seat, storage, etc.)

a. Luggage, parcels packages

b. Toolboxes

c. Around spare tire

d. All interior surfaces and voids

e. Fuel cans and air cylinders (off-load fuel cans and other incendiary materials)

2. Passenger Area

a. Luggage, parcels packages

b. Under dash

c. Under seats (visible areas)

d. Glove compartment and contents

3. Engine compartment

a. Underside of hood

b. General firewall, behind grill, and engine area (look for unnecessary components, etc.)

4. Inside bumpers (front & back)

5. General undercarriage

6. All four wheel wells

LEVEL 1: PHYSICAL/HAND SEARCH OF SEMI-TRUCKS

1. Cargo area

a. Parcels, packages and equipment

b. Ceiling, walls and floor

c. Non-cargo containers, toolboxes, etc. (off-load fuel cans)

2. Passenger area

a. Parcels and packages

b. Luggage

c. Under and behind fold up/down seats

d. Sleeper area

3. Glove compartment and cab storage areas

4. Engine

a. Open hood or cab cover. Search readily accessible areas.

5. General framework, undercarriage and wheel assemblies, toolboxes, wheel wells, etc. (Check around fuel tanks very carefully)

6. Bumpers, steps and running boards.

7. Roof of cab and cargo box/trailer

8. Check external trailer compartment length, depth, etc. to assure that false panels capable of concealing people are not built in

Some additional search areas for specialized trucks:

Tank trucks:

1. Check hose compartments

2. Check pump compartments

3. Check filler cap area

Gas cylinder delivery trucks:

1. Inspect generally between cylinders (assure that only cylinders are present and that they appear normal)

Multi-compartment service truck

1. Check each compartment and contents.

LEVEL 2: PHYSICAL SEARCH OF AUTOMOBILES, PICKUP TRUCKS, STATION WAGONS

A. Front Section

1. Front license plate: Examine area behind license plate

2. Front directional lights (two locations): Examine cover. Be alert for indication of recent installation

3. Front bumper: Examine insider surface. If bumper is close to auto structure, use an inspection mirror

4. Grill work: Examine between and inside of the grill work

5. Headlights (two locations): Be alert for indication of recent installation

B. Side section (repeat the following steps on each side of the car)

6. Front side lights. Examine lamp cover. Be alert for indication of recent installation

7. Front hubcaps: Remove and examine cap and wheel and/or inspect for recent removal

8. Front wheel wells: With the aid of a flashlight and inspection mirror, examine inside of wheel well. Contraband has been found attached by magnets to the inside surfaces of wheel wells

9. Door handles: Examine underneath

10. Rear hubcaps: Remove and examine cap and wheel and/or inspect for recent damage

11. Rear wheel wells: Same as search point #8

12. Rear side lights: Same as search point #6

13. Window cutouts: Roll windows down and look into the interior of the door where possible

14. Surface of doors: Open door and examine underside for possible cutouts

15. Front side of doors: Open door and examine front side of door and adjacent structure of auto for possible cutouts

16. Rear side of doors: Open door and examine rear side of door and adjacent structure of auto for possible cutouts

C. Rear section

17. Rear license plate: Examine area behind license plate

18. Rear bumper: Examine inside surface of bumper. If bumper is close to auto structure, use an inspection mirror

19. Tail lights and back-up lights (right and left): Examine inside of cover lamps. Be alert for signs of recent installation

20. Fuel filler neck: Remove cap and examine inside for possible suspension of contraband into neck. Be cautious of volatile fuel fumes. Confirm presence of gasoline or diesel fuel. Assure no smoking in area while this is done

D. Engine compartment

21. Battery: Examine area under and around battery

22. Voltage regulator: Examine cover for signs of recent installation

23. Air filter: Examine for indications of recent installation. Examine the “thumb” type hold-down nut and area immediately adjacent for signs of tampering. The air filter is not a vital engine part, and the inside filtering element can easily be removed and replaced with contraband material

24. Oil filter: Examine for indication of recent installation or modification. The oil filter is not a vital engine part, and it is possible to internally modify an oil filter so as to bypass the engine oil and leave the interior of the filter hollow for the concealment of contraband

25. Windshield washer liquid container: Examine the interior with the aid of a flashlight

26. Radiator filler neck: Examine inside for possible suspension of contraband packages. Be extremely careful when removing the cap. Wrap your hand in a large towel or use an insulated rubber glove and stand back. This is a hazardous operation as radiator fluid may be expelled

27. Grill work: Search around and inside grill

28. Hood cover and entire engine compartment structural work: Examine around and under all structural members and engine components for possible attachment of contraband packages. Examine inside of “weight reduction” holes in stiffener members attached to under surface of hood

E. Passenger compartment

29. Glove compartment: Examine interior and contents

30. Entire dash panel: With the aid of an inspection mirror and flashlight, examine the entire space behind the dash panel

31. Ventilation and heating ducts: With the aid of a flashlight, inspection mirror, and or a fiber scope, examine the inside of the outlet housing ducts. Be alert to signs of recent installation. This is a prime search point

32. Floor mats and back side of control pedals: Examine the underside of all floor mats. Examine back side of control pedals for attachment of contraband packages

33. Front seats: Examine underneath. With the aid of a flashlight and an inspection mirror, look up into cushion springs from the bottom

34. Bucket seat backs: On most bucket type seats, the inside back panels snap off to expose an area of considerable size

35. Ashtrays: Remove inside containers and examine contents and space inside of holding structure

36. Back seat: Remove back seat. Examine cushions and springs area. Most back seats easily snap out by pulling up on the forward edge

37. Rear seat back: With back seat removed, look up into the area behind seat back and auto structure. Also check under fold-down seats

38. Top of passenger compartment (sun visors, mirror, dome light, and header): Examine sun visors and behind the same. Check behind rear view mirror and inspect dome light assembly for signs of recent installation. Examine header for slits and bulges

F. Trunk compartment

39. Trunk roof: Examine trunk roof forward and under rear deck window

40. Spare tire: Loosen spare tire and examine area under tire. Be alert for signs of recent work on tire and rim. Check for air pressure

41. Trunk bottom covering: Examine underneath

42. Recessed space behind rear wheel well: Some automobiles have a recess in the area behind the rear wheel well. This recess is usually covered with a cardboard panel and the trunk bottom covering and gives the trunk a continuous flat appearance

43. Tail light assembly covers: The lamp assemblies of most tail lights are accessible by removing the back cover, which is located in the trunk. Be alert for signs of recent installation

44. Bottom surface of trunk lid: Examine inside of “lightening” holes in stiffener members attached to underside of trunk lid

G. Under structure

45. Front gavel panel: Examine inside

46. Bottom of radiator: Examine for signs of modification work. The appearance of unusual welds, brazing, soldering, and painting could be an indication of possible installation of false bottoms or compartments. This is a prime search point

47. Wheel wells (4 locations): Examine inside surfaces from the bottom

48. Engine oil pan: Be alert for signs of recent installation, search same details as #46. 49. Muffler: Be alert for signs of recent installation, search same details as #46

49. Fuel tank: Be alert for signs of recent installation. Search very closely for attached small charges, wires, etc. Search same details as #46

50. Rear gravel panel: Examine inside

51. Right rocker panel: Examine for cutouts and signs of modification

52. Left rocker panel: same as Search Point #52

53. Entire framework: With the aid of an inspection mirror and portable lighting, examine the entire under-framework for the attachment of contraband packages by utilization of tape, wire, or magnets

Some special considerations for searching semis

Be sure to check between dual wheels

If the truck has a cab sleeping area, check under the mattress, inside pillows, between blanket covers, in ventilation outlets and in the headliner area

Check under the entire tractor-trailer for packages attached to the underside. According to information received by NLECTC from various truck drivers, attaching packages of contraband to the under-frame of tractors and trailers is a commonly used method used for smuggling

While searching the interior of a truck trailer, be sure to check between the sidewalls, the ceiling and the bumper panel. Watch for recently installed screws and be sure to examine the floor for loose flooring and signs of hidden compartments

Check for contraband concealed in spaces between the company sign panel(s) and the trailer body

Be sure to look inside and behind plastic document pouches

In a trailer with an upward sliding door, be sure to examine the portion of the inside ceiling that is covered by the sliding door when the door is in the open position. Step into the trailer and close the door. Examine the ceiling and the door track with the aid of a flashlight

Inspect all panels that could conceal people. Check the thickness of each panel and measure the internal depth/length of the trailer vs. the external depth/length. Differences greater than 8 inches are suspect.

Search Procedures for Animal-Assisted Searches

1. Allow the dog to run and exercise briefly to become familiar with its surroundings (“Be sure this is done away from the target area,” advises a K-9 expert). Attach leash or collar

2. Have all vehicle doors, hood, trunk, compartments, and any covered openings opened. This assumes that the vehicle has been occupied recently. If not, caution is to be exercised, since opening doors during an actual search can be hazardous (rigged to trigger explosion) if the vehicle is abandoned or unattended

3. Proceed directly to the downwind side of the vehicle

4. Start search at a specific point and search in a counter-clockwise manner, paying particular attention to fenders, wheel wells, wheels, hubcaps, bumpers, and door/passenger area

5. If the dog shows interest in the inside of the vehicle, let the animal go in and complete a search of seats, floorboards, and dashboards. (Reference Step 2 above.)

6. The dog should be directed into and allowed to search the cargo areas

7. The undercarriage should receive attention. This is difficult on automobiles but readily accessible on larger trucks

Note: Follow the specific procedure under which the search animal has been trained. The animal/handler is best qualified in this respect

Tell us about your most interesting search. What did you find? Where? E-mail us at: editor@calibrepress.com

 

 

 

 

 

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