Civil libertarians are criticizing Ohio police for arresting a driver because his car contained a compartment that could theoretically store illegal drugs, though no drugs were found at that time.
The driver, 30-year-old Norman Gurley of Michigan, was pulled over for speeding. A highway patrolman noticed wires running to a secret compartment in the car and arrested Gurley, even though there were no drugs in the compartment. The officer also claimed he smelled marijuana in the compartment — giving him probable cause to search it — though none was ultimately discovered.
It makes no difference whether police find drugs or not, according to a new Ohio law that prohibits secret compartments.
“No person shall knowingly operate, possess, or use a vehicle with a hidden compartment with knowledge that the hidden compartment is used or intended to be used to facilitate the unlawful concealment or transportation of a controlled substance,” the law states.
Gurley is actually the first person to be arrested under the law. A police spokesperson praised the arrest, noting that even one fewer drug “trap” car on the streets was a positive thing and downplaying the fact that Gurley didn’t have any drugs.
“We apparently caught them between runs, so to speak, so this takes away one tool they have in their illegal trade,” said Lt. Michael Combs in a statement to local news. “The law does help us and is on our side.”
It’s a justification that rings hollow to John Whitehead, president of civil liberties group the Rutherford Institute.
“Although Norman Gurley had no drugs on his person, nor in his car, nor could it be proven that he intended to conceal drugs, he was still arrested for the ‘crime’ of having a hidden compartment in the trunk of his car,” he wrote. “This is what a world without the Fourth Amendment looks like.”
Ohio State Highway Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.