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The Baltimore Sun

Comptroller praises Baltimore County for helping snuff out cigarette smuggling

State's Attorney for Baltimore County Scott Shellenberger joined forces with Comptroller Peter Franchot on Thursday, April 26, to announce success in prosecuting cigarette smuggling cases in the county.

The two also pledged further enforcement against the crime.

"We have got an epidemic of this illegal contraband smuggling going on through our state," said Franchot at the morning press conference outside the Circuit Courthouse in Towson, "We're going to continue a crackdown on this activity because it's become the go-to crime for not just petty criminals, but for big-time criminal gangs

According to Franchot, cigarette smugglers can pay $41 per carton of cigarettes in Virginia and sell them for $20 more in Maryland. If they continue up Interstate-95 to New York, the cartons can be sold for $112 each.

"When we talk to these criminals and ask them why they're doing this, they basically say it's like Willie Sutton," Franchot said. "We rob banks because that's where the money is. We smuggle cigarettes because we make a lot of money, and the penalties are insignificant."

According to a press release from Franchot's office, seven of the 21 arrests made by the comptroller's agents in Baltimore County since July have been successfully prosecuted, while 13 are still pending.

Shellenberger said the maximum allowed jail time is two years, and the fines typically leveled against the offenders don't amount to much.

Jeffrey Kelly, director of field enforcement for the comptroller's office, said the state-average fine is $3 per carton.

A typical stop will include around 16 cases — holding 1,800 cartons, he said.

Shellenberger was in attendance because Franchot singled out Baltimore County as a "great partner" in enforcing smuggling laws.

"The criminals we interact with on this issue do not like to be caught up in the Baltimore County justice system, because unlike some other parts of the state, here, somebody's sticking up for the taxpayer," Franchot said.

Working with Baltimore County law enforcement, the comptroller's Field Enforcement Division has conducted 20 formal investigations, resulting in the arrest of 28 individuals and the seizure of more than 100,000 packs of cigarettes worth more than $600,000 since the start of FY 2007.

"This certainly is a problem," Shellenberger said. "It is against the law, and it certainly deprives our state of tax dollars."

According to Kelly, Baltimore County gets the "lion's share" of such stops because I-95 goes northbound through the county right after the toll plazas.

The cases often begin at stores in Virginia that have been identified as catering to smugglers, officials said. In some instances, the smugglers are observed loading their vehicles and are followed into Maryland before they're pulled over.

But in others cases, a tag number is simply recorded and sent along to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

"The transportation authority has become very, very good at identifying these vehicles," Kelly said. "We'll report (the tag number) to the toll facility locations so they can pick up the tag and put a hit on it. We stop them in a safe place on 95."

Additionally, Kelly said state police officers, as well as sheriff's deputies from the state-border counties, have learned what's inside the rectangle-shaped containers covered in blankets or trash bags.

"It's almost always a police officer making a personal observation of the smuggling, of the vehicles being loaded, or seeing cigarettes in the vehicle as they stop them," Kelly said. "They're pretty solid cases."

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