10/10/2007Tennessee: Cars Seized Over Packs of Cigarettes
Revenue agents surveilling Tennessee residents who buy cigarettes in a nearby state. Those found with two cartons will have their car confiscated.
Tennessee revenue agents will be watching, ready to accuse residents of the new crime of driving with 21 packs of cigarettes purchased across state lines. Those carrying just over two cartons of smokes in their car might lose their vehicle for good. The crackdown announced late last month is part of an effort to defend a July hike in the cigarette tax from 20 to 62 cents per pack from nearby states with much lower levies.
The net result is that Tennessee will confiscate and sell cars worth thousands or tens of thousands each over a claimed loss of tax revenue of $13.02. Cigar lovers likewise become criminals under the statute and face six months in jail if accused of driving with 51 cigars. A heavy smoker carrying a three-month supply -- enough to evade an alleged $155.62 in cigarette tax -- is guilty of a felony under the Tennessee law. The penalty, in addition to car confiscation, is up to six years in prison and an additional $3000 fine. Earlier this month Governor Phil Bredesen (D) embraced an official anti-cigarette policy to complement the confiscation program.
"It's also a historic occasion as Tennessee becomes the first traditional tobacco state to enact such a comprehensive statewide smoking ban," Bredesen said.
The most controversial aspect of the seizure program is that Tennessee Department of Revenue agents on September 27 began placing stores lawfully selling cigarettes in other states under surveillance. In Kentucky, for example, agents watch for cars bearing Tennessee license plates leaving shops that sell tobacco products. Once these cars cross back into Tennessee, they will be stopped and searched. If cigarettes are found, state law does not recognize that such cigarettes could be for personal use.
"Every person who transports within this state cigarettes not bearing Tennessee revenue stamps... shall be presumed to be transporting such products in violation of the provisions of this part, and such products and any vehicles used to transport them shall be deemed contraband," Tennessee Code Section 67-4-1019 states. "Such products shall be confiscated and disposed of as provided for in this part. Such vehicles may likewise, in the discretion of the commissioner, be confiscated and disposed of as provided for in this part."
Even a dealer with the lawful right to carry 21 out-of-state cigarette packs will lose his car on the mere accusation of revenue agents until the commissioner decides to accept the evidence presented.
"Any unstamped tobacco products found in any vehicle... shall be prima facie evidence that such were intended to be used for gift, sale or distribution," Tennessee Code Section 67-4-1020 states.
Seized vehicles are sold with 90 percent of the profit going into the state general fund, and 10 percent into the revenue department's own budget. The tax program is designed to raise $228 million.