Cigarette smuggling case set for hearing

WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp said Wednesday he intends to close the next hearing of a criminal case involving two defendants facing cigarette smuggling charges and evidence deemed by Sheriff Timothy C. Carter too sensitive to be heard in open court.

Hupp told Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Louis Campola and defense attorney David Downes that the closed hearing, scheduled for 2 p.m. May 28, will be held to determine how much evidence now in sealed files will be allowed at the trial of the defendants, John Charles Taveras and Thaer Nimer Khashman.

Taveras and Khashman, both of New York City, are facing a combined total of 50 charges spawned by the participation of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office in investigations of cigarette smuggling up and down the East Coast over a period of several years.

Millions of dollars exchanged hands between law enforcement agents from several jurisdictions, including Shenandoah County, and suspected cigarette smugglers during the investigations.

In one case based in Pennsylvania, the Sheriff’s Office collected $885,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture program after a successful prosecution. The asset forfeiture program distributes money among law enforcement agencies that have seized cash and property linked to criminal business activities.

Downes has filed court documents stating that Taveras alone is accused of conducting 46 transactions with undercover officers and paying them more than $2.4 million for 73,610 cartons of unstamped cigarettes, each of which carries an excise tax of $3.

In cigarette smuggling operations, the lower excise tax cigarettes are taken from Virginia to higher tax jurisdictions such as New York City. Cigarette smugglers pocket the difference between the price of cigarettes bought in low-tax states and sold in places where the tax is much higher.

Details about the Sheriff’s Office undercover operations targeting cigarette smugglers have begun to trickle out as Downes has sought to assemble evidence for his defense of Taveras and Khashman. But Campola has objected strenuously to the release of such information, much of which remains sealed under an earlier order issued by Hupp.

Hupp signaled that at least some of the sealed evidence will be available for public review after the next hearing.

Hupp scheduled the hearing in response to motions by Downes, who said the evidence must be unsealed to give Taveras and Khashman a proper defense at a yet to be scheduled trial.

Hupp said although he will close the next hearing, some of the evidence now under seal cannot remain that way much longer.

“One you go to a criminal trial, that has to be a public proceeding, so Mr. Downes doesn’t have his hands tied too tightly,” Hupp said.

Downes said he wants to make a significant amount of documentation available for trial.

“There are X number of pages under seal that may be affected,” Downes told Hupp.

Hearings in adult criminal cases are rarely closed.

The section of state law pertaining to public access to the courts states in part: “The records and papers of every court shall be open to inspection by any person and the clerk shall, when required, furnish copies thereof, except in cases in which it is otherwise specially provided.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com