A Massachusetts lawmaker is looking to give law enforcement another way to bust people and seize vehicles. Modify a vehicle you own in a certain way and you can expect to never see that vehicle again.
Blame it on the war on drugs and pressure from law enforcement lobbying. Stephan Hay, a Democrat state representative for Fitchburg, has introduced a bill that would criminalize operating a vehicle with a hidden compartment designed for the purpose of secretly transporting drugs and related contraband, equipment, currency, or weapons.
The bill, H.1266, separately criminalizes the process of altering a vehicle with the intent of creating such hidden compartments. In each case the bill calls for a two-year mandatory minimum sentence, five years for subsequent offenses. The bill also allows police to seize the modified vehicle.
Notably, the bill wouldn't limit "secret compartment" busts to those containing contraband. The presence of an aftermarket "concealed storage space" is enough to trigger an arrest and seizure. The state would have to prove there was intent to use the compartment to store contraband, but the wording in the bill [PDF] flips the burden of proof when it comes to the vehicle itself.
Proof that a conveyance contains a hidden compartment as defined in this section shall be prima facie evidence that the conveyance was used intended for use in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances.
As Reason's Scott Shackford points out, Massachusetts already has the worst forfeiture laws in the nation. This built-in presumption of guilt only makes this worse. Defendants will start out in the hole, asked to prove a negative simply to have a small shot at recovering their seized vehicle. Unknowingly purchase someone's drug-running vehicle? It's as good as gone if the police discover any secret compartments. Seeing as criminal charges would result in something more aligned with due process, it will come as zero surprise if the law is used to seize vehicles but leave prima facie "drug traffickers" otherwise unharmed.