SW Legal studies in Business

Ban on “Secret Compartment” in Cars Unconstitutional Violation of Due Process
Description

Illinois high court struck down a state law that made it a felony to own or operate a vehicle with a secret or hidden compartment in it. The law violated due process as citizens could be convicted regardless of the use of the compartment.

Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words

Due Process; Felony; Pretrial Challenge; Secret Compartments

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

An Illinois statute made it illegal “for any person to knowingly install, create, build, or fabricate in any motor vehicle a false or secret compartment.” Carpenter was charged with violating this statute because he “owned or operated” a vehicle with a secret compartment in it. Police discovered it when they were questioning the operator of the vehicle and he was seen closing a “secret compartment” in the dashboard. The passenger-side airbag had been removed in favor of the compartment. A BB gun was found in it. Carpenter was sentenced to two years in prison. Because the same statute was an issue in several other cases, the Illinois high court took an appeal directly from the trial court, bypassing the court of appeals, so it could consider the constitutionality of the law that was the basis of Carpenter’s conviction.

Decision

The statute making it a crime to have a false or secret compartment in a motor vehicle is facially invalid on due process grounds. The statute potentially criminalizes innocent conduct, as it imposes the status of a felon upon anyone who owns or operates a vehicle he or she knows to contain such a compartment, which is defined as one intended and designed to conceal the compartment or its contents from law enforcement officers. The compartment need not have any illegal contents for a conviction to result, as was the case with Carpenter. Citizens have recognized expectations of privacy in their belongings and the containers in which those belongings are kept.

Citation

People v. Carpenter, 888 N.E.2d 105 (Sup. Ct., Ill., 2008)

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