A New Jersey man was arrested in Prince George's County on Wednesday after authorities allegedly found 13,500 packs of cigarettes in his van. They said he bought the cigarettes in low-tax Virginia and planned to profit by selling them in another state, a common smuggling scheme.
Officials said Shun Zhang, 33, of Caldwell, N.J., was stopped at 3 p.m. on Interstate 95 near Powder Mill Road in Beltsville after authorities followed him from Virginia. They said Zhang bought $54,000 worth of cigarettes in Virginia, where the tax is 21/2 cents per pack. The tax in Maryland is $1 a pack. In New Jersey, it is $2.40.
Cigarette smuggling is "a very lucrative business," said Michael Golden, a spokesman for Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), whose office conducted the investigation of Zhang. "It doesn't take a lot of money to make a lot of money. It's a legitimate, legal product that is transported and distributed illegally."
Zhang was charged with transporting untaxed cigarettes, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of $50 for every 10 packs of cigarettes -- or $67,500 in Zhang's case. He also was charged with unlawful possession of the cigarettes, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
A spokeswoman for the Prince George's jail said Zhang was released on $5,000 bond pending legal proceedings. He could not be located for comment yesterday, and authorities declined to say where in Virginia the cigarettes were purchased.
Golden said Maryland considers a pack of cigarettes to be untaxed if it was bought outside the state. By law, a person residing in Maryland may possess no more than two such packs. Someone traveling through the state may possess no more than a carton, or 10 packs.
Wednesday's arrest was "great," Golden said, because "it helped keep a large quantity of untaxed cigarettes off the market and it helped the legitimate business owners who are out there selling cigarettes legally."
The lucrative business of smuggling cigarettes is a simple scheme that garners huge profits -- and low penalties for arrest and conviction -- and has recently begun to rival drug trafficking as a funding choice for terrorist groups, law enforcement officials have said.
"It really is a growing problem," Golden said. "And there is the insinuation out there that cigarette smuggling monies have been used to fund worse crimes."
Officials said there was no evidence of any ties between Zhang and terrorist groups.
Golden said authorities have made 13 such arrests since July 1 and have confiscated 42,199 packs of untaxed cigarettes worth nearly $170,000, including those seized Wednesday. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, he said, authorities in Maryland arrested 177 people and seized nearly 232,000 packs of cigarettes worth about $933,000.
The dozen agents in Schaefer's office who investigate cigarette smuggling often begin their cases in other states, Golden said, where they observe suspects as they buy thousands of packs of cigarettes. The agents then follow the suspects into Maryland.
"By and large, these people are headed north through Baltimore and onward," Golden said. He said the smuggled packs are often sold in bulk to store owners or in smaller quantities from the trunks of vehicles or at illegal warehouses.