By Joe Beck
Winchester police seized 480 cartons of untaxed cigarettes and $5,022 cash during the arrest of a New York City man on a charge of possessing untaxed cigarettes Thursday night.
Heng Peng Li was being held without bond after the arrest that Winchester Commission of Revenue Ann T. Burkholder hailed as a breakthrough in a new effort to crack down on illegal cigarette trafficking in the city.
"It was a really exciting event for us to get such a quick payback on our training," Burkholder said.
She said police began training on enforcement of cigarette tax laws on Dec. 7 under the guidance of the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board. Burkholder said the cigarettes seized will be resold to legitimate distributors through a bidding process. She estimated the city could receive $20,000 or $30,000 in revenue from the transactions.
Winchester Police Sgt. Frank Myrtle said the arrest began with a Teletype tip Thursday evening from New York City police about suspicious activity in the parking lot of America's Best Value Inn at 1347 Berryville Ave. Myrtle declined to say how the New York police obtained their information.
Myrtle said Winchester Officer G.F. Macher III went to the parking and spoke to Heng. A news release from the police said Macher found several cartons of cigarettes in Heng's vehicle. The discovery led police to obtain a search warrant for a room at the Best Value Inn, where authorities found hundreds of cartons of cigarettes and thousands of dollars cash, according to the news release.
Authorities said they took Heng to the Northwestern Adult Regional Detention Center where he remained Friday. A 2013 Ford Edge also seized during the investigation, police said.
Federal authorities have been prosecuting defendants in cigarette trafficking cases throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley for the last several years. The cases, some of which originated in Frederick County, have involved enormous sums of money reaching tens of millions of dollars and many thousands of cartons of cigarettes sold without state stamps.
Burkholder said Winchester requires a local tax stamp on all packs of cigarettes in addition to the state tax stamp.
The local tax was put into effect in 1992 and was raised from 10 cents to 25 cents per pack in the last year or two, she said.
"To the best of my knowledge, we're the first local government in our area to say 'let's address this at the local level,'" Burkholder said. "Heretofore, it's been mostly at the federal level."
Myrtle and Burkholder said Virginia's low cigarette tax stamps its interstate highways make it an appealing place for traffickers looking to transport cigarettes to the high tax state of New York where they can be sold at great profit.
"We're close to the intersection of (Interstate) 66 and as well (Interstate) 95," Myrtle said. "People come right over to Winchester and go straight up to New York."
Anyone with additional information is asked to contact the Winchester Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division at 665-8477.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org