By Joe Beck
Cigarette traffickers seeking big profits in the illegal trade between Virginia and states with higher taxes on packs and cartons would face heavier penalties under legislation introduced by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.
Gilbert's bill would incorporate several crimes involving illegal cigarette sales into the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, a law that has previously been reserved for offenses such as murder, assaults, gang crimes, terrorism, money laundering and transmitting of illegal money.
Gilbert said the spread of cigarette trafficking into the Northern Shenandoah Valley, most visible in several cases pending in federal court, made harsher prison sentences an appropriate response to a crime wave that is sometimes underestimated in its seriousness.
"Cigarette trafficking is a major problem in the Shenandoah Valley," Gilbert said in an email comment. "Because our cigarette taxes are so low compared to New York, organized crime elements have learned they can make more money trafficking cigarettes than they can dealing cocaine, and with much less risk due to the relatively low penalties."
Gilbert cited one case originating elsewhere in the state that revealed a Yemeni citizen had a ticket stub in his wallet from the top of the World Trade Center dated from Sept. 10, 2001. The ticket stub was the only item the man wanted returned to him after his trial was completed.
"Clearly, someone who knew enough to visit the World Trade Center and get a souvenir on the day before the worst terror attack in American history is knee deep in the world of terrorism," Gilbert said. "The fact that he was later caught smuggling cigarettes to support those activities demonstrates just how serious this is."
Crimes covered under the state racketeering law allow for sentences of at least five years for a first offense and 20 years to life imprisonment for two or more offenses. The transmission of money obtained from racketeering can be punished by one to five years in prison.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter and Commonwealth's Attorney Amanda Wiseley testified before the state crime commission late last year as it issued a report on the illegal cigarette trade in Virginia.
Carter said he has not yet read Gilbert's bill, but "I would imagine in general we would be supportive of the proposed legislation" if it is consistent with the state commission's recommendations for combating cigarette trafficking.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org