By Joe Beck
One of at least two dozen defendants in a vast contraband cigarette trafficking scheme is hoping to avoid prison, but a federal prosecutor wants the judge to crack down on a crime that he describes as offering lucrative payoffs with few risks of serious punishment.
The defendant Cheng Zeng was involved with 30 transactions worth more than $1.5 million during an 18-month period, according to a sentencing memorandum filed Thursday in U.S. District Court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeb Terrien.
"The financial benefits that flow from trafficking in contraband cigarettes are substantial," Terrien wrote. "Individuals are repeatedly drawn to commit this criminal conduct because the financial rewards are so high, and the typical punishment imposed by courts is miniscule at best."
Terrien asked Judge Michael F. Urbanski to sentence Zeng to three years and 10 months in prison and three years probation when he appears for a sentencing hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Terrien also asked Urbanski to order Zeng to forfeit $74,260 linked to his crimes and pay a fine of $5,000.
In another sentencing memorandum filed Thursday, Zeng's attorney, Michael T. Hemenway of Charlottesville, argued for no additional prison beyond the time already served since Zeng's arrest. Hemenway also listed an unspecified period of home detention as an option.
Hemenway said Zeng was no more than a driver for Mohammad Atif, the conspiracy leader. Authorities say Atif has fled the country and is believed to be in Pakistan.
Hemenway wrote: "In imposing a sentence, Mr. Zeng asks the court to consider his positive contributions to society over the years, the limited nature of his criminal conduct, and the many ways in which Mr. Zeng already has been punished (and may continue to be punished in the future through his felony conviction) for poor choices he made over several months beginning in May 2010."
The indictment against Zeng states he bought thousands of cartons of cigarettes at locations in Woodstock and Stephens City during the middle of 2010 as part of a conspiracy to resell them at a substantial profit in New York.
Zeng paid an undercover law enforcement agent $19,440 cash during one transaction described in the indictment.
"During the transaction, Zeng stated he was getting his orders for untaxed cigarettes from customers in New York," the indictment states. "Zeng said he had rented an apartment in Stephens City, where his customers came to pick up cigarettes."
Terrien's memorandum calls for "a period of incarceration, commensurate with the financial gains to be had" as important to deterring similar crimes.
"If the sentence imposed is insufficient to promote inadequate deterrence, there is no reason to investigate and prosecute similar violations," he said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org