We Are Now Criminalizing Awesome Secret Compartments. What Is Wrong With This Country?

sports car

Does this car have an awesome secret compartment? Probably not.


Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

Ross Langdon had a problem. Though he had stolen more than $9,000 worth of goods from local residents, he apparently had no idea what to do with the loot. After presumably considering and dismissing options like “resell it online” and “return it with an apologetic note,” the Missouri man hit on a solution: He would hide the stolen goods in a secret compartment at the back of his kitchen pantry. A clever solution, but, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, not clever enough: Cops found both the hiding place and the stolen goods. Last week, Langdon was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Minor regional theft is not usually the sort of thing I write about, but I’m making an exception here because this minor regional theft involves a hidden compartment, and 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.”) Despite the fact that I did not own any valuables, I still wanted to have a hollowed-out book, and I remember using a pair of scissors to try and make one from a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It didn’t work—I just ended up ruining the book and blunting the scissors—but it made me feel stealthy all the same.

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?