Maryland, Delaware bills would criminalize hidden compartments in vehicles

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Friday, January 10, 2014

The Maryland General Assembly kicked off the new legislative year this week, and one bill that’s expected to come up for consideration would get tough with truckers and others who are believed to be involved in drug trafficking. A similar pursuit is underway in Delaware.

Maryland Delegate Michael McDermott, R-Pocomoke City, introduced a bill that targets hidden compartments in vehicles, including large trucks and trailers.

If approved, severe consequences could result for the person behind the wheel, and the owner, of vehicles found to include hidden compartments, with or without drugs.

Offenders in Maryland would face up to two years behind bars and/or $10,000 fines. Convictions could also result in vehicle seizure.

Only compartments added after a vehicle leaves the factory would be affected.

Advocates say the rule is needed to meet drug traffickers “head on.” They say the drug trade is an ever-evolving criminal activity and offenders are resorting to sophisticated new ways of deceiving state and local authorities.

OOIDA officials say such hiding spots are not uncommon for over-the-road drivers. Truckers who travel for days at a time have few options to hide cash they carry as part of operating their business.

The Maryland bill is similar to a two-year old Ohio law. The Buckeye State included a provision in the law that is intended to protect law-abiding truckers and others. The rule applies an exemption to “a box, safe, container of other item” added to the vehicle to secure valuables or firearms.

The protection applies as long as drugs, or drug residue, are not present.

Despite assurances from officials that they are trying to protect law-abiding citizens, critics have raised concerns about people being wrongly accused of illegal activity.

They note a 2009 university study that showed up to 90 percent of dollar bills contain traces of cocaine. Most cross contamination is blamed on currency counters at such locations as ATMs, banks and casinos.

McDermott’s bill, HB28, is scheduled for consideration Jan. 29 in the House Judiciary Committee.

Across the state line in Delaware, a similar pursuit is underway at the statehouse.

Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, offered a bill that covers “a false or secret compartment with the intent to store, conceal, camouflage, hide, smuggle, transport, or prevent discovery of a person, controlled substance, firearm, weapon, or other contraband within the false compartment.”

The bill, HB192, would exempt false compartments in the sleeper area of a large truck.

Violators would face up to two years in prison and loss of vehicle.

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