Authorities have confiscated about 72,000 packs of contraband cigarettes worth about $300,000 in the last two weeks, and four men now face felony charges.
The cigarettes were illegally transported from out of state. Field Enforcement Division officers with the Maryland Comptroller’s Office assisted state police and the Maryland Transportation Authority with the arrests.
Those charged include:
- Yun Wang Ni, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. On Feb. 24, Ni was caught with 19,020 packs of contraband cigarettes, valued at $122,679. He was released after posting $10,000 bond.
- Ammar Mohammed Shamakh, 32, of Pikesville, N.C. On Feb. 27, FED officers confiscated 20,607 packs of contraband cigarettes, valued at $133,321.50. Shamakh was released after posting $75,000 bond.
- Issam Ali Ahmed, 52, Raleigh, of N.C. On March 1, FED officers seized 28,250 sticks of contraband untaxed other tobacco products, valued at $16,381.30. Ahmed was released after posting $5,000 bond.
- Mahfoudh Sid Ahmed Sidi Baba, 29, Brooklyn, N.Y. On March 1, FED officers and state police conducted a joint investigation. Officers seized 3,898 packs of contraband cigarettes valued at $27,091.10. Baba was released after posting $5,000 bond.
All of the suspect’s cars were seized as well. Each suspect faces two years in jail and a fine of $150 per package of cigarettes, or both.
Bill George, the agent in charge of the FED’s enforcement bureau, said the smuggling of illegal cigarettes and tobacco products is occurring on a daily basis, due to the discrepancies in taxes from state to state.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” George said.
A 2013 study by The Tax Foundation found that a wide variety of cigarette taxes create incentives for black market sales. Cigarette taxes increased in 30 states, plus Washington, D.C., between 2006 and 2013.
According to that report, smuggled cigarettes account for 20 percent of total cigarette consumption in Maryland.
The state’s cigarette tax was doubled to $2 in 2007.
Health advocates have been pushing for an increase to $3 per pack for years, which would put Maryland among the top tier of states in terms of cigarette taxes and likely make the smuggling problem worse, George said.
He said officials are also concerned about other kinds of tobacco products, such as smokeless tobacco and cigars, which are being brought in from states like Pennsylvania that have no excuse tax on these items.
Maryland residents can bring no more than two packs of untaxed cigarettes into the state, according to the Comptroller’s Office.
The Comptroller’s Office said 60 people have been arrested and charged with tobacco violations since last July. The arrests have resulted in the seizure of 104,109 packs of contraband cigarettes and the seizure of 141,385 sticks of untaxed other tobacco products, together valued at $807,770.
George said the major highways that weave through the state, including Interstate 95, also make it easy for people wishing to traffic illegal tobacco products. I-95, for example, links southern states such as Virginia with low cigarette taxes to New York and New Jersey, which have some of the highest taxes.
“It’s just very convenient,” he said.
Special Agent David Cheplak, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Baltimore field division, said the office hasn't seen an increase in tobacco trafficking cases lately.
"ATF’s primary goal in tobacco enforcement is to enforce the federal laws relating to tobacco diversion with a nexus to violent crime," Cheplak said in an email. "However, as instances of tobacco trafficking come to our attention, investigations will be conducted and those found to be in violation of federal law will be recommended for prosecution."