When Pennsylvania state trooper Nicholas Cortes checked vehicle registration during a routine traffic stop on December 10, it was his first clue that he was on to something big.

The driver, whom he stopped for a traffic violation on I-80 in Pocono Township, identified himself as Grant Todd, with a Massachusetts driver’s license. The 2006 Honda Odyssey had New York plates and was registered to a woman in the Bronx, whom the driver couldn’t identify by name.

Officer Cortes asked the 300-pound driver to step out of the car. The driver claimed the minivan belonged to his friend’s girlfriend. Both the driver and his male passenger appeared nervous, responding to questions with answers they seemed to be making up on the fly.

The passenger, David Morales, 29, of Ohio, couldn’t name the city or state in which the two had just stopped, and could only identify the driver as “B.” Cortes later testified, “I could see his chest and stomach pounding through his white T-shirt.”

Cortes would soon have reason to be nervous. A background check revealed a Grant Todd with a long record in Massachusetts that included drug and firearm charges, as well as aggravated assault.
Morales’s record in Ohio included felonious assault, carrying a concealed weapon and trafficking crack cocaine.

The Odyssey was registered and insured November 12, less than a month earlier. This detail alerted Cortes to get written permission to search the van, and call for a K-9 unit. A drug-detection dog zeroed in on the rear cargo bay walls and bumper.

Cortes noticed alterations to the floor between the second and third row seats. Under the carpeting, troopers found a large square cut into the metal. A hidden compartment held three bags of cocaine, weighing 5.7 pounds, with a street value estimated at $260,000. The driver and Morales were taken into custody.

“It is in my experience,” Cortes said, “that a common thread in vehicles equipped with hidden compartments is that they recently were registered and insured.”

(Morales, facing drug and conspiracy charges, awaits a February 11 preliminary hearing. Already facing several felony charges, the driver attempted to conceal his true identity for weeks. Suspect Detrick Orrell, 34, an active member of a Springfield, Massachusetts street gang, went so far as to post $200,000 bail as “Grant Todd” before admitting it was actually his brother’s name.)

A year ago, the tactic that would be used by Orrell and Morales was on the mind of Pennsylvania Representative Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, when she wrote to fellow lawmakers that “under current law it is not a crime to possess, own or design a vehicle with concealed compartments…. these compartments are used to avoid compliance with multiple state laws including drug smuggling.”

In January of 2013, Harper introduced a bill to outlaw hidden compartments in vehicles, intended for criminal purposes. House Bill 32 is her second attempt to ban these after-market alterations. HB32 (http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billInfo/billInfo.cfm?sYear=2013&sInd=0&body=H&type=B&bn=0032) protects commercial carriers or truck owners from the confiscation of their vehicle, if they didn’t know about the drivers’ illegal activity.

Installing secret compartments in vehicles, to hide everything from live exotic animals to moonshine to illegal aliens, is nothing new. I first read about the concept in this 1970 DC comic:

But times have changed. In this car-themed story, no one is shown wearing a seat belt. Nor would many Americans have accept the idea in 1970 that people should be ticketed for not buckling up. (In 1975, one of my aunts considered it an insult to her driving whenever I put on a seat belt in her car.) Seat belts were simply a part of the car that drivers and passengers tended to ignore.

Today, a growing number of states are attempting to fight drug trafficking by banning hidden compartments in vehicles. Penalties and wording vary by state, and bills are in different stages of progress. And as the seat belt laws did in the twentieth century, the idea is sure to raise hackles.

Virginia Senator Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill that imposes severe penalties for having a hidden compartment, even if empty. Virginia Senate Bill 234 (http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?141+sum+SB234) would make it a felony to add a false or secret compartment to a vehicle, including a large truck or trailer, after it leaves the factory. Consequences for both driver and owner could be up to five years imprisonment, as well as loss of the vehicle.

On January 8, Maryland Delegate Michael McDermott, R-Pocomoke City, introduced House Bill 28, which goes before the House Judiciary Committee on January 29. Under HB28 (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2014RS/bills/hb/hb0028F.pdf), violators could face up to two years in prison, or a fine of up to ten thousand dollars, or both, as well as the loss of the vehicle to which the compartment was added after manufacture.

In June of 2013, Delaware Representative Steve Smyk, R-Milton, introduced House Bill 192 (http://legis.delaware.gov/LIS/lis147.nsf/2bede841c6272c888025698400433a04/42038132f7810e3885257af6006f4c14?OpenDocument&Highlight=0,192), which makes it a felony to possess a vehicle with a hidden compartment. The bill includes an exemption for false compartments in the sleeper section of a large truck. HB192, which calls for penalties of up to two years imprisonment and vehicle loss, is awaiting consideration in the House before moving to the Senate.

Virginia SB234 is modeled after a law passed in Ohio two years ago (http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/2923.241). The wording of the Ohio law exempts “a box, safe, container, or other item added to a vehicle for the purpose of securing valuables, electronics, or firearms provided that at the time of discovery the box, safe, container, or other item added to the vehicle does not contain a controlled substance or visible residue of a controlled substance.”

This exemption is key to protecting the rights of law-abiding truckers. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) says that over-the-road drivers typically use hidden spaces to carry cash, as part of their business. “Visible residue” is important wording, because so many American dollar bills carry trace amounts of cocaine, an extremely fine powder that is spread through ATMs, bank counters and casino counters.

Buyer beware: The Ohio law “does not apply to any licensed motor vehicle dealer or motor vehicle manufacturer that in the ordinary course of business repairs, purchases, receives in trade, leases, or sells a motor vehicle”, and “does not impose a duty on a licensed motor vehicle dealer to know, discover, report, repair, or disclose the existence of a hidden compartment to any person.” It’s not up to the dealership, or its repair department, to alert anyone to the presence of a hidden compartment, or its contents.

In November, when an Ohio man was pulled for speeding, he became the first driver to be arrested under the recent state law. While troopers found no drugs in his car, he was arrested on felony drug charges after they noticed loose wires that led them to a hidden compartment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio believes the law will lead to people being convicted of drug charges, when there is no evidence of drugs in their vehicles.

According to the Ohio ACLU, “Drug trafficking is already prohibited under Ohio law, so there is no use for shifting the focus to the container…. Further by focusing on the container itself, this bill criminalizes a person with prior felony drug trafficking convictions simply for driving a car with a hidden compartment, regardless of whether or not drugs or even drug residue are present.”

In the case of Orrell and Morales, the evidence would have both men facing serious charges in any state. It’s the hope of legislators that secret compartment laws might get smugglers off the highway, without having to catch them in the act. There is time left for truck drivers and owners to write to representatives with opinions on future laws, and on their specific wording.