By Joe Beck
Cheng Zeng's potential for earning money is decidedly limited while he serves a prison sentence of almost four years for participating in an illegal cigarette trafficking scheme.
His prospects for getting rich when he's released from prison don't look especially bright, either.
But U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled Thursday Zeng's current and future ability to earn money is no barrier to ordering him to pay $1.7 million in restitution to New York state.
While in prison, Zeng must pay $25 per month or half his income, whichever is greater, and $50 per month after his release.
In a seven-page opinion, Urbanski ruled that Zeng must fully compensate New York for the estimated revenue it lost when he helped five other defendants sell untaxed cigarettes in the Empire State.
The cigarettes were sold from two stores in Stephens City and Middletown, according to court documents.
Zeng asked Urbanski to take into consideration his meager ability to pay when issuing a restitution order required by federal law.
"The statute itself, along with the legislative history associated with (it) counsel against such a conclusion," Urbanski wrote.
He noted a presentence investigation of Zeng that found he had "no financial resources, no projected earnings or income for the foreseeable future, and a negative net worth."
Zeng, who immigrated to the United States in 1994, worked mostly as a cashier in Chinese restaurants. He also ran a restaurant in Stephens City for two years, "but sold it due to poor earnings," Urbanski said.
A sentencing memorandum filed on Zeng's behalf by attorney Michael Hemenway of Charlottesville estimated he made $9,000 to $12,000 for his participation in the ring while the other defendants, one of whom fled the country, were accused of raking in millions.
But Urbanski cited language from the law and decisions from other courts that said full restitution remains important, even if constitutes little more than symbolic recognition of victim's rights.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org