Further watering a slippery slope

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Joe Schmoe is a construction worker. And his big honkin' heavy duty is tricked out to the max — flared fenders, running boards, a roll bar with muddin' lights, skid plates and sharp wheels with tires that set him back several hundred dollars each.

Inside, it's much the same with plenty of aftermarket bells and whistles. Because he spends so much time on the road and at construction sites, he's incorporated a secret compartment into each of the two front-door panels to secure valuables.

Not only does he keep his pistol there (for self- defense and, yes, he has a concealed carry permit), he keeps a handsome stash of emergency cash, a fifth of whiskey bought in neighboring West Virginia (not available in Pennsylvania) for the occasional end-of-week, after-work shot, and cigarette papers for rolling a special-blend tobacco that he mixes and pouches at home (and, no, it's not whacky tobacky). Also kept there is one of his late grandfather's pipes.

On his way home from work one night, late for his daughter's dance recital and after running his truck through a car wash to spiff it up for her, Mr. Schmoe enters the town of Bugtussle and, yeah, he's speeding. It's a notorious speed trap and the local gendarme, using VASCAR, nabs him. But what comes next shocks Schmoe.

Enabled by a fresh Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that effectively allows police to search a vehicle without a warrant, Barney Fife — instead of accepting the driver's license, registration and proof of insurance readily offered and writing the speeding ticket — orders Schmoe out of his truck and to stand by his cruiser, hands on hood.

Officer Fife is going to “legally” search the truck. After all, a shiny tricked-out truck is good enough for the officer-determined “probable cause” at this point.

Finding nothing out in the open, the officer searches the center console, the glove box, then under the dash and under the seats. Nothing. He moves to the covered bed. Nothing. Afraid his fruitless warrantless search will embarrass him, he returns to the cab. A piece of paper peeks from an askew door panel molding.

Eureka! Barney has found the first secret compartment (and soon finds the other) and relishes in its booty. A gun! A big wad of cash! A suspicious package of “possible” marijuana! Rolling papers! A pipe!

Schmoe is arrested as a possible drug runner. And thanks to a law passed by the Republican Pennsylvania Legislature, he's also charged with having an illegal concealed compartment used in pursuit of nefarious activity.

Schmoe eventually is cleared on all but two charges — the illegal transport of liquor across state lines and having a secret compartment to transport it, never mind the chicken poop nature of the “violation.” He gets off with a small fine but could have faced a $10,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison. But he's out tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for defending himself against the state for making him, by court ruling and by state law, insecure in his person and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

This tale is fictional, of course. But the Supreme Court ruling is not. Neither will be the part about secret vehicle compartments if the General Assembly passes pending legislation. And the State of Independence will have further slickened the slippery slope to becoming the State of Tyranny.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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