Pennsylvania bill puts hidden compartments under scrutiny

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 5/28/2014

A bill on the move at the Pennsylvania statehouse would get tough with people traveling through the state who are believed to be involved in drug trafficking.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would make it a crime to possess a vehicle, including a large truck, with concealed compartments used for smuggling. HB1537 awaits further consideration on the House floor.

Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, said that under existing Pennsylvania law it’s not a crime to possess, own or design a vehicle with concealed compartments.

She wrote in a memo to lawmakers that she would like to change the rule because “these compartments can be used to avoid complying with multiple state laws including drug smuggling.”

The bill is modeled after laws in Georgia and Ohio. The Buckeye State included a provision 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 Harper’s bill shifting the burden of proof entirely upon someone who modifies their vehicle.

They also note that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-2 earlier this month that police are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant.

Harper’s bill would create a provision in Pennsylvania law authorizing convictions when there is intent to use the false, or secret, compartments for illegal activity. Violators would face up to five years behind bars and a $10,000 fine, as well as loss of vehicle.

“When vehicles with false compartments are being used or are intended to be used to transport guns, drugs or even people into or through our state, it should be a crime and police should be able to seize the vehicle,” Harper said in a news release.

Opponents say the change is unnecessary and could lead to unreasonable police searches of innocent travelers.

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.

In an effort to appease truckers and other concerned drivers, Harper included a provision that would apply an exemption to “a compartment used or possessed solely for the purpose of securing valuables, electronics, firearms or other personal property that is lawfully possessed.”

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