Controversial Hidden Compartment Law Applied in Ohio Arrest

Last week, Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) troopers made their first arrest under a controversial hidden compartment law which passed in 2012 over opposition from Ohioans for Concealed Carry (OFCC), the Ohio Liberty Coalition (OLC), and others who warned of the potential for civil rights violations.

Norman Gurley
Norman Gurley

According to the November 19 OSHP incident report, Georgia resident Norman Gurley was arrested after being pulled over for speeding and tailgating another vehicle. The report also indicates that troopers found “a small amount of marijuana” on Gurley’s person, and found a “hidden compartment built into the rear seat” upon searching his car.

“On Tuesday, which would have been the 19th, troopers — in a traffic stop for a traffic violation on the Ohio Turnpike in Lorain County, eastbound — noticed the odor of raw marijuana coming from inside the vehicle, and some other indicators of potential criminal activity possibly occurring within the vehicle,” Lieutenant Michael Combs explained during an interview with Media Trackers.

“There was an odor of marijuana, which is the reason the officers searched the car,” Combs asserted.

In addition to the hidden compartment charge, Gurley has been charged with possession of criminal tools, possession of drug paraphernalia, and identity fraud.

In the 2000 Ohio Supreme Court case State of Ohio v. Moore, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote the majority opinion which established that “the smell of marijuana, alone, by a person qualified to recognize the odor, is sufficient to establish probable cause to search a motor vehicle.”

Stratton’s opinion, with which 5 of the court’s 7 justices concurred, went on to note that the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous state courts had made multiple similar judgments regarding the establishment of probable cause.

During debate last year over Senate Bill 305, the legislation creating the hidden compartments law, OFCC warned the bill’s passage would criminalize any “added compartment, box, or container,” including “lunch boxes, briefcases and luggage.”

OLC claimed the proposal was “driven by the Ohio State Highway Patrol,” describing the bill as a “fast-tracked disaster” which would deprive Ohioans of their Second Amendment rights.

When approved by the Ohio General Assembly and signed into law by Governor John Kasich, the bill created section 2923.241 of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), stating that “no person shall knowingly design, build, construct, or fabricate a vehicle with a hidden compartment, or modify or alter any portion of a vehicle in order to create or add a hidden compartment, with the intent to facilitate the unlawful concealment or transportation of a controlled substance.”

The law does not apply to any “box, safe, container, or other item added to a vehicle for the purpose of securing valuables, electronics, or firearms,” as long as said items do not contain a “controlled substance or visible residue of a controlled substance” — which still seems to leave considerable ambiguity with regard to intent.

Gurley has pled not guilty to charges of marijuana possession, and the hidden compartment charge has been bound over to a Common Pleas court for further action. Gurley was arraigned on November 27, and is scheduled to stand trial on January 7, 2014.