Officers find 480 untaxed cartons

Posted: January 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

Paul Carey III, chief of enforcement for the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board (left), and city police Officer G.F. Macher III place cartons of cigarettes confiscated Thursday in boxes at the Timbrook Public Safety Building in Winchester. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — A New York man was arrested after city police confiscated nearly 500 cartons of untaxed cigarettes from his car and motel room Thursday night.

Heng Ping Li, 44, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is charged with possession of untaxed cigarettes in the biggest arrest of its kind in Winchester, according to local authorities.

“This is the first of this magnitude,” said Ann T. Burkholder, the city’s commissioner of the revenue.

City police Officer G.F. Macher III said he responded at about 6:15 p.m. to the America’s Best Value Inn at 1347 Berryville Ave. after a report of suspicious activity.

“We received information from the New York City police department regarding possible drug activity,” he said.

Based on that information, Macher found Li in the parking lot outside Room 129 of the motel.

According to Macher, Li consented to a search of his vehicle and said he did not have any illegal drugs or contraband.

“After I looked through the rear driver’s side window, I noticed large trash bags full of cartons of cigarettes laying inside the back of the vehicle,” Macher said.

He said he recovered about 45 cartons of cigarettes — leading him to obtain a search warrant for Li’s motel room.

That warrant was executed by city officers and members of the Community Response Team.

The officers confiscated 480 cartons of untaxed cigarettes and $5,022 in U.S. currency. A 2013 Ford Edge with Michigan registration also was taken as part of the investigation.

Li was arrested and taken to the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center. He appeared Friday via video in Winchester General District Court, where he was granted a $5,000 secured bond and permitted to leave the state.

Possession of untaxed cigarettes is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which means Li could face up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Macher said the action came as a surprise — at most he was expecting to find drug activity, not illegal cigarettes.

He attributed a recent training session with the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board for his recognition of the untaxed cigarettes.

“I probably would have checked his vehicle and probably let him go [if I had not received the training],” Macher said. “I mean, I may have contacted my supervisor and said ‘He’s got a substantial amount of cigarettes in here, but I don’t really know what I should do with it.’”

The incident may be an example of how new the crime is to local law enforcement officials.

“With the training that I was provided, that was the first time that I had knowledge about really what has been happening in our state as far as cigarette trafficking,” Macher said.

He said the cigarettes in Li’s possession are estimated to be worth from $21,600 to $25,000, but have a resale value of at least $50,000 to $60,000.

But that’s not unusual, according to Paul J. Carey III, chief of enforcement for the Northern Virginia Cigarette Tax Board. He said about $5 billion worth of cigarettes are trafficked through Virginia to New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and other higher-taxing states each year.

New as it may be for some local law enforcement, the problem is growing in the Winchester area.

Carey said his agency has seen huge spikes in the number of wholesalers of cigarettes and retailers along Interstate 81.

He estimated that the average pack of cigarettes in Winchester costs $4.50. A similar pack sells in New York for about $13.50.

A carton costs about $44 here, he added, while in New York it would likely cost about $132.

“You break that down, even if [a smuggler] turned around and sold [a carton] for $90 to a retailer [in New York], that retailer’s happy that they’re basically almost getting a $30 savings per carton,” Carey said.

The cigarettes confiscated Thursday are now city property, Burkholder said.

She added that they can be sold or shared with law enforcement for undercover operations.

Macher said he believes the seizure was beneficial for the department and the city.

“Due to the knowledge that we can obtain for everybody else, [we can report] the illegal activity that’s going on in our area that’s basically unseen,” he said.

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com