A hidden compartment in your vehicle, with or without drugs, could mean big trouble as Ohio officials get serious about slowing down drug-smuggling.
A proposed state law, advocated by Gov. John Kasich, would make it a fourth-degree felony to own a vehicle equipped with secret compartments. A conviction would mean up to 18 months in jail and a potential $5,000 fine.
The hidden-compartment law, coupled with nearly 150 new highway signs warning traffickers that they face prison time in Ohio, are part of a stepped-up drug interdiction campaign announced yesterday by Kasich. The governor gave a brief commencement address at graduation ceremonies for the 151st Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy class at the academy, adjacent to the state fairgrounds.
Kasich unveiled a new number for motorists with cellphones — #677 — to alert law enforcement about possible drug activities.
“A lot of the people that are dealing these drugs are after our kids,” Kasich said at a news conference. “When you see something, call this number.”
The governor’s news conference, held in a patrol academy garage, played out against the backdrop of a pickup truck loaded with tens of thousands of dollars of cocaine
. The drugs were scooped up in the patrol’s expanding and increasingly successful campaign to slow down drug trafficking by stopping smugglers on the highways.
Last year, troopers seized nearly 6 million grams of illegal drugs valued at $69.5 million, Kasich said. The patrol made more than 6,000 drug arrests, 9 percent more than 2010. So far this year, the patrol has seized more heroin than in all of 2011, officials said.
Part of the new drug-interdiction strategy is legislation to be introduced by Sen. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus, that would make it a fourth-degree felony to own a vehicle that has special hidden compartments — whether or not they are found to hold drugs. Currently, there is no state law prohibiting secret compartments, frequently used for drug smuggling.
A draft of the law describes a hidden compartment as a “space, box, or other closed container” that is added, modified or attached to an existing vehicle.
Hughes’ proposal is aimed at vehicles like one displayed yesterday — a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado stopped by a patrol trooper on I-71 in Medina County last year. The vehicle was equipped with a sophisticated electronic system that opened hidden compartments located behind the rear taillights. A combination of relay signals, activated by having the ignition on, tapping the brake pedal, seat lever and switches on the dashboard, caused the taillight assembly to slide out, exposing the hidden compartments.
When the vehicle was stopped, the compartments contained 6 kilograms of cocaine, apparently destined for Akron. The driver, Stan Hatch, 63, of Fort Wayne, Ind., was charged with possession of drugs and sentenced to eight years in prison.
“This stuff has been moving to and from Ohio, and has been for years,” said Col. John Born, patrol superintendent.
Law-enforcement officials said Ohio is a critical crossroads for interstate trafficking of drugs because of several major interstate highways that pass through the state and the state’s proximity to Canada.
The new road signs, with both white and blue backgrounds, will be erected on numerous highways, particularly interstates just inside Ohio’s state lines. The money for the signs comes from drug-related property forfeitures. The #677 number is being provided at no cost to the state by a consortium of cellular companies.
The Columbus Dispatch 25TH Feb 2012