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Are Pre-Crime Arrests Valid in Ohio?

Man arrested on drug charges with no drugs in sight

During a routine traffic stop for speeding in Northeast Ohio in November 2013, a driver was arrested when state troopers discovered a hidden compartment in his vehicle. Although no drugs or contraband were present anywhere in the vehicle, the officers reported that a strong marijuana odor provided the probable cause to conduct a search. Finding the hidden compartment was enough justification to arrest the driver — largely because the compartment could be used to transport contraband in the future.

This was the first arrest under a new law, introduced by the Ohio legislature in 2012, that prohibits hidden compartments in vehicles if the intent is to perform an illegal act involving controlled substances. Under the Hidden Compartment Act, intent is the operative word. Police can arrest anyone who owns or drives a vehicle with a hidden compartment, as well as individuals who add them to vehicles with the knowledge that the compartment will be used for illegal purposes. However, the law includes the following notable exemptions:

  • It does not apply to licensed dealers or manufacturers that purchase, sell or lease motor vehicles.
  • It imposes no duty on licensed motor vehicle dealers or manufacturers to know, discover, repair or disclose the existence of hidden compartments in vehicles.
  • Adding hidden compartments to vehicles or driving them for the purpose of safely transporting valuables is permitted under the law.

One of the officers involved freely admitted that the new law provided the only justification for the arrest, since they found no contraband. The real question is how the courts will view this first test of a law that essentially predicts the possibility of a crime. The only evidence in this case is the existence of the empty compartment. Still, the defendant will need a criminal defense attorney with extensive experience refuting evidence. In fact, in the event of a conviction, this case could potentially move all the way to the State or Federal Supreme Courts.

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