The 'Crime' of Having a Hidden Compartment in Your Car

In drug cases, hidden compartment laws give prosecutors one more charge to pile onto the same offense, and contain scant protections for law-abiding folk.

Hidden compartmentCBP Photography / Foter / CC BY-SALast fall, Ohio state troopers pulled 30-year-old Norman Gurley over for speeding. Detecting an “overwhelming smell of raw marijuana,” officers spent hours searching the vehicle and found no contraband.

But they did discover an empty secret compartment.

For that, police hauled Gurley, who has no criminal record, off to jail. Gurley became the first person arrested under a new Ohio statute that makes it a crime to “knowingly operate … a vehicle with a hidden compartment … used or intended to be used to facilitate the unlawful concealment … of a controlled substance.”

Lawmakers in Ohio are not alone in enacting or envisioning bans on unauthorized empty space. California, Georgia, Illinois, and Oregon have similar prohibitions on the books. Legislators in Iowa, Maryland, and New Jersey may add them this session. Similar bills have been filed in Delaware, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in recent years.

Gurley’s arrest struck more than a few people as an abuse of power. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley calls the incident “part of the expanding criminalization of America where virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police.”

In drug cases, hidden compartment laws give prosecutors one more charge to pile onto the same offense—beyond traditional counts like possession and intent to distribute. “Such proliferation of counts allows prosecutors to force people to plead guilty to avoid long potential sentences,” writes Turley, on his blog.

As Gurley’s case shows, however, motorists risk criminal charges independent of any other illicit activity. (Though police eventually did find a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in the pocket of Gurley’s passenger, the discovery took place after both of them had already been arrested, according to Reason’s Ken Silva. "Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges on [Gurley]," a state trooper told the local news station.)

In addition to fines and prison time, Illinois law and New Jersey’s bill threaten another penalty: civil asset forfeiture. (Two bills killed in the Virginia General Assembly this year would have as well.)

With civil forfeiture, police are under no obligation return a seized vehicle if prosecutors decide not to proceed with a criminal case or if the jury decides to acquit. Once police take a vehicle, property owners generally must file a lawsuit to get it back.

Police and prosecutors naturally like this arrangement; they usually get to keep seized vehicles or the profits from auctioning them off. But the process is a nightmare for property owners, who are considered guilty until proven innocent.

Hidden compartment laws contain scant protections for law-abiding folk, who may have perfectly legitimate reasons to conceal valuables in a secret compartment. Maybe you park in a high-crime area. Perhaps you carry large amounts of cash for your church or small business. Or, from personal experience, maybe you go for a hike and don’t want to risk losing your keys or wallet in the wilderness, but the plastic roof of your friend’s Wrangler is easily penetrated.

Used-car owners could also be at risk. If police discover a secret nook you didn’t know about, you’re looking at arrest, at the very least. (Interestingly, Iowa’s bill shields car dealers, but not car purchasers, from prosecution.)

Back in Ohio, because Norman Gurley was driving a friend’s car, the grand jury may not have been convinced that he both had knowledge of the hidden compartment and that he intended to use it for nefarious purposes at some point in the future.

By now, the grand jurors should have decided whether the state has enough evidence to put Gurley on trial. But Gurley’s attorney and the Lorain County prosecutor’s office did not return phone calls requesting comment, and the public docket at the county’s Court of Common Pleas is mum on the question of an indictment.

Regardless, the man has spent several months contemplating prison time—and likely has some legal bills to boot. As police like to say, you can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.

And in Illinois and New Jersey, they might take your ride.

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  • ||

    John Popper commiserates.

  • Agammamon||

    Look motherfuckers - they keep telling you, 'you have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide'.

    If you possess measures to *hide* things, then that - by definition - means you have something to *worry* about.

    Simple-fucking-logic here.

  • Copernicus||

    "a vehicle with a hidden compartment … used or intended to be used to facilitate the unlawful concealment … of a controlled substance.”"

    Isn't there something called a 'burden of proof'? How did they prove "intent"?

  • Copernicus||

    BTW, since John Turley has become such an embarrassment in recent years, maybe he can redeem himself by spending a fair portion of his skill and prestige in fighting these laws.

  • CE||

    Doesn't every car have one of these? It's called the trunk, or the boot, or whatever.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Thanks to those morons on the Supreme Court, the police can essentially write, interpret, and summarily enforce the "law" at the side of the road.

    Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

  • Eggs Benedict Cumberbund||

    Wow. This a blatant example of FYTW.

  • Will4Freedom||

    Sorry for this, but I tried to find it myself and couldn't.

    Just what does FYTW stand for?

    Yes, I'm old.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    There are days when I can't remember, for some reason.

    F*ck You That's Why

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Wow...Pee Wee Herman is back and doing Olympic ice dancing commentary

  • Nazdrakke||

    used or intended to be used to facilitate the unlawful concealment

    Awesome expansion of though crime guys, well done. It's so much easier when you can read people's minds, or even, ya know, pretend you can. Evidence is for pikers.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    "Sir, you're going to have to come with us. That three inch folding knife in your pocket could conceivably be used to kill and dismember a small child after you've had your filthy way with her. We're not taking any chances, you monster. GET ON THE GROUND."

  • Will4Freedom||

    Wasn't there a Tom Cruise movie about this? Pre-Cog or something. Oh... Minority Report?

  • Rich||

    Detecting an “overwhelming smell of raw marijuana,” officers spent hours searching the vehicle and found no contraband.

    Obviously all these officers experience olfactory hallucinations and should be terminated for psychiatric reasons.

  • Number 2||

    Please, no. They would claim that having olfactory hallucinations is a disability that entitles them to a lifetime tax-free pension. And they'd also find a hired-gun doctor who'll swear that olfactory hallucinations are the result of prolonged workplace exposure to the smell of marijuana, thereby making their "disability" work related and their disability pension more lucrative.

  • Christophe||

    I'd prefer paying cops to be on glorified welfare than to be out arresting the citizenry.

  • SugarFree||

    Especially if we could get them on tape later on correctly IDing smells and then put them in jail for disability fraud.

  • Rich||

  • sarcasmic||

    It's just boilerplate language.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    In addition to fines and prison time, Illinois law and New Jersey’s bill threaten another penalty: civil asset forfeiture. (Two bills killed in the Virginia General Assembly this year would have as well.)

    Anybody have information on the illustrious elected representatives who were pushing this crap in Virginia are?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Nevermind, Google works.

    Now similar legislation is under consideration in Virginia. Introduced by state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), SB 234 would make knowingly having a secret compartment a Class Six felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

    Who names their kid Chap? It's a guarantee they're going to be an asshole.

  • ||

    That's impossible. I've been assured by many liberals that Dems are always good on civil liberties. Not like those damn Rethuglucans.

  • Free Society||

    Social justice!

  • dantheserene||

    Crap. I've never voted for him, but he's mine.

  • CE||

    Wasn't Virginia started so people could grow weed for smoking?

  • PapayaSF||

    Last fall, Ohio state troopers pulled 30-year-old Norman Gurley over for speeding.

    As a wise friend once told me, never break more than one at the same time. I once told another friend this, and he remembered it only after getting pulled over for speeding with a load of pot in his trunk.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    It's just so fucking stupid I have to wonder if Darwin's law is kicking in half the time with these guys. It's not difficult to follow basic traffic laws which in doing so shovels a good portion of LEO crap off the radar.

  • LarryA||

    "We had reasonable cause to pull the car over because it was travelling just under the speed limit and following all the traffic laws, obviously in an effort to avoid arousing suspicion."

  • Paul.||

    A cop once said that while bad drivers aren't criminals, most criminals are bad drivers.

    Given the number of hardened criminals with outstanding warrants that cops have busted, driving the wrong way down a one-way street at 35 mph over the posted speed, without brake lights and no headlights on, this doesn't surprise me.

  • Paul.||

    While in a stolen car. And a load of pot in the trunk, with an illegal gun on in the glovebox. Drunk. With open container. And an underage girl in the passenger seat. With an unlicensed exotic animal in the back seat.

  • Acosmist||

    Sounds like a good time.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    "What are you, a fucking park ranger now?"

  • Copernicus||

    Hunter S. Thompson?

  • CE||

    And only stealing the car ought to be illegal.

  • OneOut||

    You're OK with the underage girl part ?

  • Paul.||

    George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley calls the incident “part of the expanding criminalization of America

    Who is this anti-government teabagging professor?

  • unreasonable||

    Interesting, especially since a number of stock vehicles (Acura, VW, etc.) actually come with intentional hidden compartments. Check out photos 3 and 4 in the gallery here, for example. http://www.autonet.ca/en/2009/.....a-wagon-en

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Yeah, I've always wondered how the law can distinguish between "hidden compartments" and compartments that the car searchers fail to notice, without being void for vagueness. My Echo has, from the factory, little drawers under the seat that you'd never notice unless you already knew they were there.

    I'd imagine a compartment that the car manufacturer publicly talks about can't be considered a hidden compartment, but IANAL.

  • CE||

    What if you bought a used car that had a hidden compartment? You're still guilty?

  • PapayaSF||

    I wouldn't consider that one very hidden, given that there's a clearly-visible handle to open it.

  • RishJoMo||

    Stupid punk ass cops taking this terrorist nonsense WAy too seriously.

    www.RealAnon.tk

  • Duke||

    George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley calls the incident 'part of the expanding criminalization of America where virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police.'

    Wouldn’t it be easier -- and more progressive -- to simply write a code that defines what acts are not against the law in this country?

  • CE||

    That's easy. Any criminal acts done by police are okay.

  • PapayaSF||

    We just need one law, making all crimes illegal.

    /old joke

  • S.P.||

    My ski parka has a hidden interior pocket. Does that make me a criminal?

  • ||

    A hidden compartment law? What kind of idiotic legislators wouls put such a thing on the books?

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