Cigarette Smugglers Arrested 3 Times in 3 Months

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Cigarette Smugglers Arrested 3 Times in 3 Months

6/8/2012

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On the heels of the Maryland General Assembly’s failure to impose harsher penalties on cigarette smugglers, Comptroller Peter Franchot announced today that agents from his Field Enforcement Division confiscated more than 14,000 packs of contraband cigarettes from two smugglers in three separate incidents within the past three months. Prior to their arrest on Monday, officials arrested the pair in March and April for possessing and transporting a cumulative total of approximately $90,000 worth of contraband cigarettes.

“This is a prime example of why we need stronger penalties for cigarette smuggling,” Comptroller Franchot said. “Unfortunately, the minor penalties involved in this illegal activity cause some unscrupulous individuals to thumb their noses at state law. It is for this exact reason that I urged the General Assembly to mandate stronger penalties for smuggling.”

In three separate traffic stops, members of the Maryland State Police (MSP) contacted the Comptroller’s Field Enforcement Division after observing a large amount of cigarettes in a vehicle being occupied by co-defendants, Stephon Leroy Wilkins, 49, and Chaniqua R. Rhodes, 40, both of Bronx, NY.

The details of the stops are as follows:

1.    On March 5, 2012, the duo was stopped on U.S. Route 13 in Princess Anne (Somerset County) by MSP Trooper First Class D. Tebbens for a traffic violation. From this stop, both were arrested and 5,800 packs of cigarettes worth $34,684 seized. They were later released on unsecured bonds.

2.    On April 2, 2012, they were stopped once again on U.S. Route 13 in Princess Anne (Somerset County) by MSP Corporal Kevin Mareck for a traffic violation. Again, the officer arrested the pair and seized 4,690 packs of cigarettes worth $28,046. This time they

were held on a $10,000 bond.

3.    On Monday, June 4, 2012, they were stopped by MSP Trooper Nicholas Iannucci for a traffic violation while traveling north on Interstate 95 in Harford County. Police arrested the two and seized 3,950 packs of cigarettes worth $23,621. This time, Rhodes was released on a $15,000 full bond and Wilkins was released on a $10,000 full bond.

Ironically on April 2nd, the date of the second arrest, Comptroller Franchot held a press event to urge the Maryland Senate to pass legislation increasing the exemptions and penalties for tobacco violations associated with the smuggling of cigarettes and other tobacco products into Maryland.

Currently, the crime of Transportation of Contraband (Unstamped) Cigarettes in the state of Maryland is a felony, which carries a $50 per carton fine and/or two years imprisonment; and the crime of Possession of Contraband Cigarettes is a misdemeanor, carrying a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment, not exceeding one year. Both defendants were charged with both of these crimes on all three occasions.

In an effort to prevent repeat offenses, the new legislation would have imposed a mandatory $150 per carton fine for the first offense and a mandatory $300 fine for subsequent offenses, as well as up to two (2) years in prison for both crimes. 

The Comptroller has been a vocal proponent for aggressive enforcement of the tobacco tax laws and tougher penalties to assist in the battle against illegal cigarette smuggling in Maryland. So far in the 2012 fiscal year, agents assigned to his Field Enforcement Division have confiscated approximately $1.9 million worth of contraband cigarettes, which is substantially more than the nearly $1.2 million worth of cigarettes confiscated during the entire 2011 fiscal year.

“Cigarette smuggling is a lucrative operation for criminals due, in part, to the minor consequences they face if caught. Smuggling, not only takes revenue out of state coffers, but also makes cigarettes easily accessible to young people. Penalties for this crime must be tougher in order to snuff out this public health and safety risk,” Franchot said.   



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