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Defendant accused of illegal cigarette sales wins a round

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

One of 10 defendants in a ring accused of money laundering and illegal trafficking in millions of dollars of cigarettes won a round in U.S. District Court Tuesday when Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled he was entitled to a hearing that could overturn the government's seizure of his property and financial assets.

Urbanski ruled that Anjay Pantel had proved his case that he could not pay his defense attorney's legal fees if he could not free up some of the personal wealth that the government seized from him. The prosecution is seeking a money judgment of $20.9 million from Pantel and nine other defendants facing charges in the case. If they lack the money to directly pay the money judgment, the government can force them, upon conviction, to forfeit the seized property as part of the $20.9 million being sought.

Pantel and the nine other defendants in the case were indicted in October. They were charged with 180 counts covering numerous offenses spanning a period from April 2009 to the issuance of the indictment.

The indictment describes an investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that involved the agency in operating an undercover warehouse in Edinburg. During the operation, the agency sold untaxed cigarettes to the defendants who then sold them in states with higher cigarette taxes, according to the indictment.

The alleged conspiracy also involved an undercover warehouse operated by the Fairfax County Police Department in Chantilly as it investigated illegal cigarette sales, money laundering and other offenses, according to the indictment.

The list of defendants' property and financial assets subject to forfeiture covers 19 pages in the indictment and includes businesses, bank accounts, real estate and vehicles. The list of vehicles owned by Patel includes a 2007 GMC Yukon, 2008 BMW X5, 2003 Honda Civic LX and 2005 Suzuki VZ8005K.

In his ruling, Urbanski cited previous federal court decisions that allowed defendants a hearing at which they could attempt to prove that they needed some or all of their forfeited assets to pay their defense lawyer. The rulings cited the provision in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees a right to counsel as part of the basis for their findings.

Urbanski said he was satisfied that Patel had proved that he lacked the money to pay his legal fees and therefore was entitled to a hearing at which he could try to gain access to some of the assets seized from him.

"Because the court finds that Patel has met his initial burden of establishing a need for the restrained assets in order to retain counsel of his choice under the Sixth Amendment, due process requires that he be given the opportunity to contest the government's pretrial restraint of those assets," Urbanski wrote.

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