Tobacco laws and taxes vary by state, and as a result, most states require cigarettes and other tobacco products to bear a state tax stamp that proves the appropriate taxes have been paid on the product before it can be sold legally in the state. Because prices and taxes can vary so much by state, smugglers can buy cigarettes where they are cheaper and traffic them to sell in a state where they are more expensive for a large profit; however, such activity is a felony under Virginia law. The Virginia Court of Appeals recently affirmed the conviction of a man on charges that he smuggled 4670 packs of unstamped cigarettes discovered during a routine traffic stop.
In the recently decided case, the defendant was pulled over by a Virginia State Police officer on suspicion of having illegally tinted windows. After the stop, police determined that neither the driver nor passenger of the vehicle defendant was traveling in had a valid driver’s license. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the arresting officer noticed what appeared to be drug residue in the defendant’s vehicle and called a canine unit to assist with a search. The canine unit flagged the vehicle for possible drug material, which led the officer to perform a search. Although the search of the vehicle did not uncover any illegal drug material, nearly 10,000 illegal cigarettes were found, resulting in the arrest of the defendant on smuggling charges.
Before trial, the defendant attempted to have the evidence against him suppressed, claiming that the traffic stop was completed by the time the canine unit arrived. He also claimed that because no illegal drugs were found by the canine search, the signal and search were not appropriate. The trial court rejected the defendant’s arguments, finding that the arrival of the canine unit was part of the traffic stop and a reasonable result of the officer noticing what appeared to be drug material in the vehicle. Furthermore, the prosecution noted that because there were no licensed drivers to remove the defendant’s vehicle from the side of the road, the cigarettes would have been found even without the canine unit, as the officers would inventory the vehicle after issuing the defendant citations for driving without a license and illegal window tint.