By Greg Ellison, Staff Writer
(Aug. 30, 2018) State Comptroller field agents conducting a surveillance operation last week intercepted a vehicle with New Jersey tags traveling out of Virginia on Route 13 in Pocomoke and containing more than 2,800 packs of contraband cigarettes valued at more than $18,000.
Nasser Manssour, 55, of Brooklyn, New York was arrested and charged with a felony count of transporting contraband cigarettes and a misdemeanor count of possession of contraband cigarettes, after being stopped in a 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV on Route 13 and Sheep House Road last Thursday.
Comptroller Peter Franchot issued a press release on Monday that praised the diligent efforts of Field Enforcement Division agents to identify individuals illegally smuggling tobacco products across state lines.
“My FED agents’ vigilance protects Maryland businesses and taxpayers from those who try to cheat the system with their illegal activities,” he said in the release.
In total, agents recovered 2,820 packs of contraband cigarettes worth an estimated $18,189, which represents a state tax loss of $5,640.
According to the release, agents observed Manssour conceal the contraband in the rear of the SUV while outside a discount cigarette retail store on the Lower Shore of Virginia.
Joseph Shapiro, Comptroller’s Office director of communications, said field agents regularly partner with the Maryland State Police and other local law enforcement agencies on comparable operations statewide.
“Often during traffic stops for something unrelated like speeding, troopers will notice large amount of cigarettes,” he said. “Our agents will go out and verify the taxes have been paid.”
In addition to lost tax revenues, Shapiro said untaxed tobacco products lack regulatory oversight and could potentially be distributed to minors.
“There is no way to assure the actual product is in there and in some cases they have been tampered with,” he said. “The bottom line with untaxed cigarettes is it’s unfair to the local business folks who are doing the right thing.”
Shapiro noted cigarette smugglers oftentimes use fake tax stamps to avoid detection.
“We come across cases where they try to make them look more official,” he said. “The tax stamps are changed [regularly] and are not like the one used three years ago.”
Shapiro said because of a high volume of repeat offenders, in 2013 the state toughened related penalties, which previously included a $50 per carton fine and a potential two-year jail sentence.
The current penalties include a mandatory $150 per carton fine for first offenders with the potential for two-years of incarceration. Fines increase to $300 per carton for subsequent violations.
“The punishment was not stiff enough to outweigh the profit potential,” he said.
Manssour, who was released on his own recognizance, has a preliminary hearing scheduled in Worcester County District Court in Snow Hill on Sept. 14.