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Guarantee more thorough vehicle searches with this checklist

Vehicles provide a vast array of spots criminals can hide contraband, including weapons, drugs and explosives. Under pressure, making sure you’re conducting a thorough, strategized search can prove challenging. Here are areas the National Institute of Justice suggests checking during vehicle searches. Consider printing this list and keeping it in your squad for quick reference during your next search.

Vehicle Search Checklist


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

    a. Luggage, parcels, packages
    b. Tool boxes
    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 fire wall, behind grill, and engine area (look for unnecessary components, etc.)

4. Inside bumpers (front and back)

5. General undercarriage and roof (check carefully around fuel tanks)

6. All four wheel wells


1. Cargo Area

    a. Parcels, packages, and equipment, etc.
    b. Ceiling, walls, and floor (walk-through)
    c. Non cargo containers, tool boxes, 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, tool boxes, 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 Truck:

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.


A. Front Section

1. Front license plate: Examine area behind license plate.

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

3. Front bumper: Examine inside 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 (2 locations): Be alert for indications of recent installation.

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

6. Front side lights: Examine lamp cover. Be alert for indications 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 down 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 indications of recent installation.

20. Fuel filler neck: Remove cap and examine inside for possible suspension of contraband into the 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 the 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.

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

51. Rear gravel panel: Examine inside.

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

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

54. 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

Typical procedures using search dogs are as follows:

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.

Scott Buhrmaster is Vice President of Training and Editorial for, which was awarded the “Quill & Badge Award” for Excellence in Journalism by the International Association of Police Unions. He is also the Publisher of Police Marksman magazine and has served as Contributing Editor for Law Officer magazine. He has been a member of the law enforcement training community since 1989, when he began work as Director of Research with Calibre Press, Inc., producers of The Street Survival Seminar.

Throughout his tenure at Calibre, Buhrmaster was involved with virtually every aspect of the company’s officer survival training efforts, from the planning, creation and marketing of the organization’s award-winning textbooks and videos to developing and securing training content for the Seminar. In 1995, he was named Director of the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline®, an Internet-based officer survival training service he helped found. In less than five years, Newsline readership grew from 25 officers to more than 250,000 in 26 countries, making it one of the most popular training vehicles in law enforcement history. His efforts now focus on providing training and information to the nearly 400,000 officers worldwide who visit every month.

Prior to joining Police1, Buhrmaster, who also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center and stands as an active member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, was President of The Buhrmaster Consulting Group, an international consulting practice for the law enforcement training sector and the publishing industry. Scott may be reached at