Bills in three states put hidden compartments under scrutiny

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Thursday, January 16, 2014

Add Virginia to the growing list of states pursuing rule changes that would get tough with truckers and others who are believed to be involved in drug trafficking. Delaware and Maryland also have bills that cover the topic.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill in the Virginia Senate that targets hidden compartments in vehicles, including large trucks and trailers.

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

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.

Petersen’s bill would make it a felony for hidden compartments to be installed, created, built or fabricated in any vehicle after it leaves the factory. Violators would face up to five years behind bars and loss of vehicle.

SB234 is modeled after 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 or 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.

A similar effort is underway across the state line in Maryland. There, Delegate Michael McDermott, R-Pocomoke City, introduced a bill that would authorize penalties of up to two years in prison and/or $10,000 fines. Convictions could also result in vehicle seizure.

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

HB28 is scheduled for consideration January 29 in the House Judiciary Committee.

In Delaware, Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, offered a bill that covers after-market installations. Specifically, it addresses “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.

Smyk’s bill awaits consideration on the House floor. If approved there, it would move to the Senate.

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