COLUMBUS — New efforts to crack down on drug trafficking in Ohio include the introduction of legislation targeting hidden compartments in vehicles and changes in how drivers can use the State Highway Patrol hotline, which will get a new number.
Authorities are using a multifaceted approach to try to stop people from transporting illegal drugs through Ohio and to its communities, said Lt. Anne Ralston, a patrol spokeswoman. Last year, troopers seized nearly 6 million grams of illegal narcotics and contraband valued at more than $69 million and made more than 6,000 drug arrests.
“When we look at how drugs are moving across the U.S., Ohio is really in the thick of this,” she said. “A majority of the routes that drugs are taking either go through or to Ohio.”
State Sen. Jim Hughes, a Columbus Republican, introduced legislation this week to make it a fourth-degree felony if a hidden metal compartment for stashing drugs is found inside a vehicle. Offenders could spend 18 months in prison or be fined $5,000.
He said the patrol approached him with pictures of the compartments and told him the legislation was needed. He said traffickers sometimes place the compartments inside gas tanks or somewhere along the underside of the vehicle as they move drugs across state lines.
“I had no idea,” he said Friday. “It’s very creative, unfortunately, to get by law enforcement.”
Ralston said current law makes it tough for law enforcement officers to pursue charges if they discover a hidden compartment but no drugs inside it, she said.
Meanwhile, troopers are turning to the public for help. The patrol will encourage drivers to call its hotline not only when they need help or spot an impaired driver, but also to report drug activity.
More than 125 existing blue signs posted along Ohio highways instruct travelers to dial 1-877-7-PATROL if they need help, but the patrol is replacing that number with a simpler one, (hash)677, at no extra cost to phone users. Part of the reasoning is that it can be tough to dial the old hotline when buttons on some modern phones aren’t labeled with letters in the traditional style of older phones, Ralston said. On cellphones with buttons arranged like a standard computer keyboard, for example, hitting the letter “P” isn’t necessarily the same as punching in a “7,” as it would be on older phones.
The patrol will reinforce its anti-drug message by putting signs at entrances to the state along major routes, warning travelers that “Drug Traffickers Go to Prison.”
The switch in hotline numbers won’t affect how those calls come in for regional dispatchers, who are getting extra training to handle any new drug activity reports.
When such calls come in, dispatchers will route them to the patrol’s criminal intelligence unit unless they require an immediate response from a trooper or local law enforcement, Ralston said. A call about a driver spotted using drugs behind the wheel likely would prompt authorities to follow up immediately, but a tip about more ambiguous suspicious activity would likely be routed to the intelligence unit and could be used to help identify trends.
The hotline project, which includes replacing the phone number on the blue highway signs, is costing the patrol more than $22,000. It’s paying for the project with funds from collected from previous cases, such as currency seized in drug busts.
The patrol also plans to increase its collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, including more so-called “shield details” in which law enforcement saturate a geographic area for a set time to target traffic problems and crime in that area.