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Understanding cigarette trafficking and its consequences

“Cigarette trafficking” might sound strange when cigarettes are not illegal in Virginia like methamphetamine or cocaine. However, cigarette sales are tightly regulated under state and federal law.

For one thing, cigarettes are heavily taxed. Laws like the Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act (CCTA) of 1978 enforce the payment of sales tax by vendors by banning black market sales. Virginia has a similar law. Specifically, vendors cannot receive, possess, transport or sell cigarettes without the proper Virginia Revenue Stamps, commonly known as cigarette stamps. Buying these stamps is the way that vendors pay taxes. Attaching a stamp to each pack or carton proves that those taxes have been paid. Even where taxes have been paid, it is illegal to possess more than a certain a quantity of cigarettes, as explained below.

How Virginia punishes unstamped cigarettes

Getting caught selling cigarettes without stamps in Virginia has expensive consequences. A first offense means a fine of $2.50 per pack, up to $500. The fines double for a second offense within 36 months. But if convicted for a third time in that time period, the court could order you to pay $50,000. And if the prosecution proves “willful intent… to defraud to Commonwealth,” you will be fined an additional maximum of $25 per pack, up to $250,000.

You could also face prison time. Possession of less than 500 packs of unstamped cigarettes with intent to distribute is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to twelve months in jail for a first offense. Possession with intent to distribute of 500 packs or more is a Class 6 felony, and a second offense or subsequent offense at that quantity is a Class 5 felony. That could mean up to 10 years in prison!

Where an individual is in possession of more than 30 packages, or three cartons, of unstamped cigarettes, there is a legal presumption that such possession is for the purpose of evading taxes unless the person in possession has been issued a permit to affix revenue stamps or is a retail dealer who has lawfully purchased cigarettes from such a permit holder.

How Virginia punishes trafficking of tax-paid cigarettes

Packs of cigarettes bearing the Virginia tax stamp are very popular on the black market in high-tax states such as New York, as the tax stamp is seen by many illegal purchasers as an indication that the cigarettes are not counterfeit.

Unlawful possession of tax-paid cigarettes can also land you in prison and subject you to significant financial penalties. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail for a person who is not an authorized holder to possess with intent to distribute more than 25 cartons, but less than 200 cartons, of tax-paid cigarettes. Possession with intent to distribute of more than 200 cartons is a Class 6 felony, and a second or subsequent offense is a Class 5 felony. A Class 6 felony carries up to 5 years in prison and a Class 5 felony carries up to 10 years in prison.

What do I do if I’m charged with possession of cigarettes with intent to distribute?

A solid criminal defense strategy is necessary to confront this situation. The attorneys of Randall & Bruch, PC, have extensive experience fighting cigarette trafficking charges. Christopher Daniels, for example, spent years as the prosecutor assigned to handle cigarette trafficking cases in Emporia before switching sides to defend those accused of cigarette trafficking. We have extensive experience litigating bond hearings and motions to suppress in cigarette trafficking cases. A motion to suppress is a pre-trial motion where these types of cases are often won. A motion to suppress would generally be made on the grounds that the stop or search of a vehicle was unconstitutional. If that motion is granted, all evidence recovered after the illegal stop or search, to include contraband cigarettes, would be excluded from being introduced as evidence in Court against the defendant. Every case is unique and having an experienced cigarette trafficking attorney on your side is crucial. Give us a call today at 434-336-9090 for a free consultation.

jack t randall

Written By Jack T. Randall


As lifelong resident of Western Tidewater, Jack Randall is a local attorney who wants the best results for his clients. He is an experienced and aggressive attorney with focus on family law, criminal and traffic law, as well as personal injury law cases.