The latest trend in contraband in Maryland is cigarettes: thousands of packs being brought into the state from neighboring jurisdictions to avoid the state's new 66-cent-per-pack tax.
Maryland tax agents have made nine cigarette smuggling arrests since July 1--when the tax rose from 36 cents per pack--compared with five arrests in all of 1998. The latest arrest was made Tuesday of a New York man whose car trunk was crammed with 3,480 packs (348 cartons) of untaxed cigarettes. Authorities said they had been tracking the man, who was pulled over on Interstate 95 near Savage, for more than two weeks. He was charged with misdemeanor possession of untaxed cigarettes.
The largest haul to date was made Sept. 21 when a Brooklyn, N.Y., man was stopped on the Capital Beltway near Forestville. The rear compartment and back seats of the Dodge Caravan minivan Sahir Sulaiman, 35, was driving were stacked with 9,410 packs of untaxed cigarettes, state tax agents said. He, too, was charged with misdemeanor possession of untaxed cigarettes.
Four days later, 8,550 packs of untaxed cigarettes were seized from two men--one from Brooklyn, N.Y., the other from Richmond--who were arrested on Interstate 95 in Oxon Hill. Later the same day, 4,360 packs of untaxed cigarettes were seized from a Roanoke man, who was also stopped on I-95 in Prince George's County.
"We don't know how far the smuggling problem reaches yet. It's an astronomical figure, I think," said Larry Tolliver, director of field enforcement for the state comptroller's office, which handles tax-related law enforcement. "I can tell you we're not even touching what's going on out there."
Maryland's proximity to Virginia, where the tax is just 2.5 cents per pack, provides a tempting opportunity for smugglers, said state tax enforcement agents. They and New York City tax officials believe that a black market once dominated by small-time hustlers who sold their contraband from car trunks is being taken over by more organized groups based primarily in New York.
All but one of the alleged smugglers arrested in the past two months have been from the New York City area or Virginia.
The tax increase was the cornerstone of the recent legislative agenda of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and is intended to discourage smoking.
"Our informants are telling us that Maryland is one of the hot spots not only because of the tax but the location," said Tom Stanton, director of enforcement for the New York City department of finance, which investigates cigarette smuggling.
Many smugglers operating in Maryland are based in New York, where they have financial backers, said Stanton. He said his office has seen a "tidal wave" of smuggling over the last four months, much of it a result of Maryland's tax increase.
But if the arrests in Maryland are evidence of a growing crime problem, they also demonstrate how it might be combated. All the arrests were based on tips gathered from informants or from intelligence reports by Maryland investigators who have infiltrated smuggling rings.
"Our intelligence files are really starting to come together," said Tolliver, adding that he estimates it will take three years to develop a reliable, wide-reaching intelligence network.
There are 12 agents in the enforcement division of the comptroller's office, responsible not only for cigarette tax enforcement but also for inspecting trucks for fuel taxes, monitoring business taxes and issuing 21 types of vendors' licenses. But Tolliver said, "I think we're making a dent. Smugglers know we're there."
CAPTION: Kenneth Demianchik, of the Maryland comptroller's office, sorts through cartons of confiscated cigarettes collected by state tax enforcement agents.