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Is It Legal To Sleep In An EV While It Charges?

Charging isn’t always quick and easy when on road trips. While DC fast charging stations like Tesla’s Superchargers or Electrify America are now easy to find along most interstates and many other roads, there are still rural patches where you’ll need to pick up some juice on Level 2 or even plug your car in at an RV park, and it’s a lot easier to fit that kind of charging into your schedule if you can sleep while it happens. Even at fast stations, sometimes you need to do a longer charge session or you’re on a long trip that can make you feel tired and need a little nap while the car charges. Just grabbing a few minutes of sleep can be a big help for both your comfort and your safety.

As you drift away into dream land, occasionally you’ll get an unwelcome surprise. Sometimes, the extra light of headlights pointed at your car or an annoying flashing yellow, blue, or red light startles you awake. Other times, it’s a knock on the driver’s side window. This happened to me once in a parking garage that had EV charging, and it was a security guard asking me what I was doing in the garage at 2 AM. I pointed to the front of my LEAF and said, “I’m charging my car up.” The guy looked embarrassed, and told me he was used to seeing cars with a more obvious charger port on the side of the car, and that my LEAF didn’t look much like an EV.

I’ve never had any other run-ins with police or security, but this did make me wonder whether an EV driver could get in trouble with the law for sleeping in a car while it charges. Unfortunately, it’s a simple question that has a somewhat complex answer.

Private Property

In most countries, your rights are very limited when you’re a guest on someone else’s property. Aside from laws prohibiting discrimination based on characteristics like your race, sex (or refusal to adhere to sex stereotypes), or religion, a property owner can generally decide what the rules are and ask you to leave if you don’t follow them. When it comes to driving your car, businesses are thrilled to let you park out front so you can come in and spend money inside, but they aren’t happy at all when someone wears out their welcome and makes other customers feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the big thing most business owners are trying to keep away is homeless people. While I’m sure most of them aren’t heartless people who want to turn away people in need, having busted cars in the lot with trash strewn about them is bad for business. Having a person with poor hygiene who behaves strangely (often due to untreated mental illnesses and/or addictions) begging for money is even worse for the bottom line, as it can frighten people away and send them to competing businesses with tighter parking lot rules.

Homelessness is, of course, a tragic problem, but a small business owner doesn’t want to join the ranks of the homeless themselves. So, they end up putting up a “No Overnight Parking” sign or instruct security guards to ask people sleeping in cars to leave.

On the other hand, if you’re well-behaved and don’t trash the place, many businesses are OK with someone sleeping in their parking lot overnight, though. Unless it’s prohibited by law, most Walmart stores and Cracker Barrel restaurants allow people with an RV or conversion van to boondock for a night. They don’t offer amenities like electric, water, or sewer hookups like an RV park, but they also don’t charge people anything. The store benefits because people almost always need to go in and buy something.

You can find lists of such places here if you’re an RV owner looking for free camping spots, but the main point in talking about RVs is to show that as long as you aren’t causing a business owner to worry, you’re generally not going to have any problems with them.

The good news for EV drivers is that you’ve got permission to be on the property if you’re there charging your EV. If you weren’t allowed to stay there and charge, there wouldn’t be charging stations, or there would be a sign limiting how long you can stay there (which does happen, so be sure to respect the rules). Unless you’re sleeping naked or otherwise doing something that would disturb other customers, no sane business owner is going to tell you to get lost or call the cops on you.

Even in the rare case that sleeping in a private parking lot violates local laws, police generally aren’t looking for EV drivers to harass because car camping laws are generally aimed at the homeless (which is cruel and unfair, but not something I personally have any control over).

Public Property

Public property can be a lot less rational when it comes to sleeping in your vehicle while it charges.

In a growing number of cities, there are laws against sleeping in a car. As I’ve pointed out above, they’re generally aimed at sweeping homeless people under the rug so that the Karens who regularly attend city council meetings and complain will shut up. This in turn has led to court challenges, revised laws, more court challenges, and (rightful) accusations that cities aren’t treating the poor fairly, which then leads to repeals or revisions to city codes or designated areas where people can sleep in cars.

For EV drivers, common sense will generally prevail here. Sleeping in a charging EV isn’t going to get police attention because you’re not doing anything that they want to waste time bothering you for. But there’s always the few bad apples who spoil the whole barrel, and occasionally a cop will bother someone over sleeping in a car even when it’s obvious they aren’t living in it. They may have some irrational axe to grind with EVs, and may try to enforce a local ordinance strictly. This is rare, but possible.

Because these city ordinances are always in flux and the exceptions to them are unclear, it leaves EV drivers with a bit of a minefield if you’re worried about local ordinances. Your best bet is to probably avoid longer naps when you’re in places known to be at odds with their homeless population, or to Google the particular city you’re in if you aren’t sure. Not sure which city you’re in? Use Google Maps and click/tap on the city’s name, and it will usually show you the boundaries.

Screenshot from Google Maps.

When it comes to highways, there’s another patchwork of laws. Some states are OK with people parking on the shoulder and taking a nap, while others limit shoulder parking to emergencies only. You’re probably not going to find any charging stations there, anyway. Roadside rest areas allow parking, and sometimes even offer EV charging, but how long you’re allowed to stay in a rest area varies from state to state. There are usually signs informing you of the limit, and there may be specific rules for the EV charging space. As long as you follow the posted rules, you’re going to be OK catching some Zs.

Problems Are Rare, For Now

Truth be told, the potential for issues with sleeping in a charging EV is very small. I’ve only ever been bothered by a security guard once, and never by police. Most drivers will tell you the same thing. If you use common sense and don’t make a scene somehow, you’re probably going to be fine charging yourself up while the EV charges up.

Sleeping in an older EV at publicly-owned charging stations could start drawing police attention in the future. A 2011 Nissan LEAF I used to own. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

On the other hand, this is something to stay on top of. As older used EVs get cheaper and more people own them outright, EVs may start to become part of the idiotic battle some cities are waging against the homeless. Businesses may set strict time limits or turn stations off at night to keep homeless people in EVs away. Cops might start doing “welfare checks” on people who are charging for more than a few minutes. People charging an electric RV may eventually see such harassment in the future, too.

But for now, it’s probably going to be OK.

Featured image: My 2018 LEAF charging at an Electrify America station in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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