Friday, November 7, 2008
Supreme Court Limits Drug Law’s Definition of ‘False Compartment’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Original vehicle equipment that has not been altered cannot be classified as a “false compartment” under a state law making it a crime to possess such a compartment with intent to conceal or transport illicit drugs, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Unanimously affirming the First District Court of Appeal’s Div. Two, the justices threw out John R. Arias’ conviction for violation of Health and Safety Code Sec. 11366.8. The statue prohibits the possession of a “false compartment” “with the intent to . . . conceal . . . or transport a controlled substance within the false compartment.”
It further defines “false compartment” as:
“[A]ny box, container, space, or enclosure that is intended for use or designed for use to conceal, hide, or otherwise prevent discovery of any controlled substance within or attached to a vehicle, including, but not limited to, any of the following:
(1) False, altered, or modified fuel tanks.
(2) Original factory equipment of a vehicle that is modified, altered, or changed.
(3) Compartment, space, or box that is added to, or fabricated, made, or created from, existing compartments, spaces, or boxes within a vehicle.”
A Contra Costa Superior Court jury found Arias guilty of transporting methamphetamine and possessing the drug for sale, as well of the false-compartment charge. Yesterday’s ruling leaves the convictions on the other two counts intact, and does not affect the aggregate prison term, since Arias’ four-year sentence under Sec. 11366.8 was concurrent to the seven years to which he was sentenced on the other counts.
The case against Arias grew out of a 2005 traffic stop in Martinez.
The arresting officer testified that he pulled Arias over for driving without a front license plate and asked him to exit the vehicle. He said he checked under the driver’s seat, saw nothing, then looked up and saw a white substance sticking out of a “gap” between the dashboard and the steering column.
He further testified that the dashboard panel just above where the driver’s left knee would be was loose; he pulled off the panel and removed the plastic that he had noticed covering the white substance. He found three baggies containing what turned out to be methamphetamine.
The defendant testified that he did nothing to alter the interior of the vehicle, which belonged to his mother.
Based on that evidence, Justice Ming Chin wrote yesterday, the defendant should have been acquitted.
The language of the statute, the justice wrote, establishes that lawmakers intended to “restrict the meaning of a false compartment to boxes, containers, space, or enclosures that are not simply factory-created compartments or original factory equipment.” Nothing in the officer’s testimony, he added, suggested that the officer made any effort to determine whether the space in which the drugs were found was standard factory equipment.
The trial judge, he added, prejudicially erred in instructing the jury that a vehicle space used to conceal illegal drugs is a false compartment ““even without any modification of the physical configuration of the space.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Associate Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn M. Werdegar, Carlos Moreno and Carol Corrigan concurred in the opinion.
Justice Marvin Baxter concurred separately, agreeing that the evidence was insufficient to show that the space in which the drugs were found was a “false compartment” but arguing that the majority’s interpretation of that phrase was “cribbed” and “unduly narrow.”
Baxter argued that the statute should apply to equipment that is installed after the vehicle leaves the factory and is used with the requisite intent to conceal or transport controlled substances, as well as to factory-installed equipment.
The case is People v. Arias, 08 S.O.S. 6061.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company