Secret compartment laws considered in lieu of drug charges

Secret compartment laws considered in lieu of drug charges

Most Maryland residents might be surprised that potential legislation in the state would criminalize having a secret compartment in their vehicles. That is right; the state legislature may consider a bill in the upcoming session that would ban unauthorized ’empty space’ inside a vehicle. This crime could be prosecuted instead of — or in addition to — drug charges that result from traffic stops in the state.

Lawmakers in Ohio have already passes such a measure. The law there prohibits drivers from knowingly operating a vehicle that features a secret compartment, even if it does not have any contents at the time of the traffic stop. As a result, motorists now risk being charged simply because their vehicle has been modified — they may not have even committed any other illicit acts.

Opponents of such measures say they may be designed to provide civil benefit to police officers, as civil asset forfeiture has been added to the prison time and fines that could result from the accusations. Civil asset forfeiture allows authorities to seize a defendant’s vehicle, even if prosecutors do not proceed with criminal cases or if a jury fails to convict. Property owners may have to file a lawsuit to get their vehicles back. Authorities benefit because they can keep the seized vehicle or profits that come along with vehicle auctions.

Still, not everyone uses secret compartments to commit drug offenses. Many people use the compartments to hide money for their small businesses or even their churches, or they hide valuables inside the compartments while traveling. In some jurisdictions, used-car owners could be at risk of prosecution, even if they are not charged with drug trafficking or another violation; owners are expected to know whether their car is outfitted with a secret compartment.

Drivers should not be subject to such unfair rules, which can now be used in lieu of specific drug charges to prosecute innocent people. Maryland has not yet passed such a measure, but it could happen during this session. Drivers who are arrested under such a mandate could face prison time and large legal bills. Criminal defense attorneys may be able to provide additional information about the legal consequences of such a proposed measure.

Source: Reason, “The ‘Crime’ of Having a Hidden Compartment in Your Car” John K. Ross, Feb. 16, 2014

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