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
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