If you’re planning to do any driving in Pennsylvania or Ohio this summer, better make sure you don’t even look like a drug smuggler, or you could be facing up to 5 years in jail.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled last week that police no longer need a warrant to search vehicles.  Just “probable cause” in the mind of the officer will do.  This aligns the state’s policy with a federal ruling that automobiles are excepted from the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of warrantless searches.

The court was sharply split on the decision.  Justice Seamus McCaffery says that probable cause requirement is still “a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches,” but his colleague Justice Debra McCloskey Todd says this decision erodes “over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright.”

For sure, it makes the rule more easily applied, but ease should not be the standard for protecting people’s privacy.  Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, and he says the requirement for a warrant provides “one more deterrent against bad police behavior.”  With that rule abolished, an important check on police power is also swept aside.

On the heels of this decision, the Pennsylvania legislature is working on outlawing secret compartments in vehicles.  Even if the compartment held no illegal items or nothing at all, drivers would be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor, have their car seized, and face up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Watchdog.org says these two developments “add up to greater authority for police and prosecutors but less privacy for Pennsylvania drivers.”

Ohio already has a similar law aimed at fighting the drug trade and smuggling.  In this state, a secret compartment is a felony.  Law enforcement can already arrest anyone with contraband items, but they want one more way to get smugglers even if their car is empty.  In the process, anyone with a secret compartment is automatically treated as if they were a drug dealer.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says the Ohio law gives police one more reason to arrest people.  Just the presence of a hidden compartment in a car can now be charged as a crime.  This provision adds one more charge that can be used to force accused drug dealers to plead guilty, when there are already plenty of charges available.

It is part of the expanding criminalization of America where virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police.

The law places the basis for the crime on the intention to use a secret compartment for illegal purposes.  This crosses a fine line into prejudging a person’s thoughts.  Turley appropriately calls this a “dubious distinction.”

With these laws, police could pull someone over on a normal traffic stop, judge there to be “probable cause” for a search, and arrest someone just for finding an empty hidden compartment.  The driver is charged with a crime and faces 5 years in prison unless he or she can properly defend the “intentions” for the compartment, while the officer’s “probable cause” can be verified later.

Sounds like “guilty until proven innocent” to me.

Photo Credit: Anne Kitzman / Shutterstock.com

About The Author

Mark Meckler
President

Mark was a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and served as the national coordinator. He left the organization to work more broadly on expanding the self-governance movement beyond the partisan divide. Mark appears regularly on television in outlets as diverse as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business and the BBC. He’s highly sought after for the tea party perspective from print and electronic media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Examiner, Politico and the The Hill. Mark blogs at MarkMeckler.com, and his opinion editorials regularly run in many of the leading political newspapers both on and offline. Mark has a BA in English from San Diego State University and graduated with honors from University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in 1988. He practiced real estate and business law for almost a decade. For the last eleven years of his legal career he specialized in Internet advertising law. When not fighting for the future of our nation, Mark is an avid horseman, and lives in rural northern California with his wife Patty and two children.