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Crime panel to study cigarette smuggling

By Larry O'Dell -- Associated Press

RICHMOND -- The Virginia State Crime Commission agreed Monday to conduct its own study of illegal cigarette trafficking rather than pass the issue off to the General Assembly's overworked investigative agency.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Thomas K. Norment, said the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission's staff already has so many other studies in the works that a report on cigarette smuggling could take up to two years to complete. By then, he said, cigarette traffickers probably will be even more sophisticated and harder to catch.

"The creativity of the criminal mind is never at rest," said Norment, R-James City.

Among the ideas the commission will examine is the feasibility of delegating enforcement of cigarette trafficking laws to the Alcoholic Beverage Control department or another state agency.

The issue is not a new one for the commission, which studied cigarette smuggling in 2012 and backed legislation to toughen penalties. But the panel learned this fall that the problem has continued to grow.

Experts have told the commission that cigarette smuggling has become so lucrative that organized crime is getting involved, and many former drug dealers have switched to peddling contraband smokes instead of narcotics because the penalties if they get caught are still much lighter.

Bootleggers can buy a pack of premium cigarettes for about $5.55 in Virginia, which has the nation's second-lowest tobacco tax, and sell it for a big profit on the black market in New York City, where a higher tax pushes the cost to about $14 a pack. A smuggler can turn a profit of about $170,000 on one vanload of cigarettes.

The crime commission also endorsed some modest proposals to deal with the issue Monday, including allowing police to use confiscated contraband cigarettes in undercover operations rather than destroy them as now required by law. Another proposal would authorize multijurisdictional grand juries to investigate cigarette trafficking.

At its last meeting before the 2014 legislative session, the commission also backed several measures to deal with child sexual abuse. Among them are bills to establish special investigative teams, require Child Protective Services employees to complete training before being given decision-making authority on complaints, and increase the time for retaining paperwork on unfounded complaints from one year to three years.

In other matters, the commission took no action on measures to decriminalize child prostitution, to expunge convictions of women who are forced into prostitution and to make sex between a teacher and an adult a crime. The panel studied those legislative proposals over the past year and did not discuss them at any length Monday.

The commission voted to support a proposal that would allow a local prosecutor to join defense attorneys in petitioning a court to exonerate a wrongly convicted person. In such cases, the circuit court would conduct a hearing on whether to release the prisoner on bond while the petition is pending.

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