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December 10, 2013

Are cool secret compartments another casualty of the drug war?

The somewhat silly question in the title of this post is my response to this somewhat silly Slate piece sent my way by a helpful former student.  The piece by Justin Peters, Slate's crime correspondent, is headlined "We Are Now Criminalizing Awesome Secret Compartments. What Is Wrong With This Country?" and here are excerpts (with links included):

I have been obsessed with hidden compartments since I was a kid.  As a child, I was delighted to learn that it was possible to conceal your valuables inside a hollowed-out book. (For more on this topic, consult the valuable Wikipedia article “Concealing objects in a book.”)...

If we can agree that there’s nothing lamer than an inept secret compartment, let’s also stipulate that there’s nothing more impressive than a good one.  These days, the best secret compartments are usually found in vehicles, where they are often used by criminals to conceal drugs, weapons, or other contraband.  The most sophisticated of these “traps” look like the sort of thing you’d see in spy movies.  Earlier this year in Wired, sometime Slate contributor Brendan I. Koerner wrote about Alfred Anaya, a California man who was among the best trap-car builders in the land.  Anaya built intricate, almost undetectable secret compartments that could only be opened by hitting various buttons and switches in succession. Koerner mentions one trap installed behind the back seat of a truck, “which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle’s electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.” The man was some sort of genius.

He was also, allegedly, a criminal, at least in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration.  According to the DEA, much of Anaya’s business came from drug traffickers who used his “trap cars” to smuggle illegal narcotics cross-country.  Though Anaya was not involved in the drug business himself, and took pains to avoid asking his clients about why they needed his compartments, the feds claimed he was an active conspirator all the same.  A jury agreed, and Anaya is now serving a more-than-20-year sentence in federal prison.

While, as Koerner notes, it’s not a federal crime to build a hidden vehicular compartment, some states are passing laws that effectively make it a crime to have one installed.  In 2012 Ohio passed a law making it a felony to knowingly build or install a trap “with the intent to facilitate the unlawful concealment or transportation of a controlled substance.” Intent is a malleable concept, though, and it can be troublesome from a civil-liberties standpoint. A week before Thanksgiving, Ohio state troopers arrested a man named Norman Gurley for having a secret compartment in his car.  Though the compartment was completely empty, troopers still claimed that Gurley had intended to use it to smuggle illegal drugs. “Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges on the suspect,” a Highway Patrol lieutenant said after Gurley’s arrest.

Other people have already weighed in on why exactly that’s so problematic, and I won’t belabor the points that they have so capably made. All I’m going to say is that it strikes me as a damn shame, and somewhat un-American, to criminalize the sort of ingenuity you need to build a good trap-car.  I have no problem with cops arresting people who build pathetic hidden compartments; those artless people deserve their fates. And if you’re caught concealing substantial quantities of illegal drugs, well, the fact that you may have violated a hidden-compartment law is probably the least of your worries.  But merely conceiving of and installing a good one ought to be celebrated, not criminalized. Who says America doesn’t build things anymore?

December 10, 2013 at 07:35 PM | Permalink


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Too bad that Alfred Anaya didn't also teach federal applicants how to fool lie detector tests so that he could have been charged as a Career Criminal and spent the rest of his life in prison, instead of just 20 years. If I remember correctly, the DEA set up a sting and set up Anaya by commenting out loud about the proposed uses for his compartments. Just like they set up stings for merchants by posing as customers who buy meth-making household items (aluminum foil, charcoal, common acids and bases, etc.) and talk to each other about "cooking".

This is our country and we get what we deserve. No America doesn't stink but it smells worse every year and goes more bankrupt every year, financially and intellectually. But that is what both Republicans and Democrats want, tax-paying zombie voters indoctrinated by the US educational system, entrapment be damned. Both lying - claiming that they alone have the capacity to protect you when the truth is they can't protect anyone.

Make room Detroit, we're coming to join you.

Posted by: albeed | Dec 10, 2013 10:55:20 PM

The Pentagon Papers are in one such compartment in my boat trailer as we speak. They are protected speech. They are intended to Petition my government for redress of grievances in the Vietnam War. The papers are being stored to protect them from thieves and from RepubliCons who have their own version of the Vietnam War. This is a protected space. I have a right of privacy under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteent Amendments and the Third as well because I don't want any troops quartered in my boat trailer.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 10, 2013 11:37:03 PM

might also want to remember to put in a second secret compartment with a weapon you can use on the little Nazi wannabee's when they start bothering you about your EMPTY first compartment!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 11, 2013 11:49:27 PM

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