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Va. lawmakers advance crime commission bills

Monday - 1/21/2013, 2:33pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - A Virginia Senate panel endorsed legislation Monday to crack down on illegal cigarette trafficking and financial crimes against elderly or incapacitated adults.

Both issues were studied over the past year by the Virginia State Crime Commission, which backed the bills. Crime commission approval does not guarantee passage, but it carries substantial weight with lawmakers.

The Courts of Justice Committee endorsed five bills sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, toughening state laws against cigarette bootleggers.

The crime commission's study concluded that cigarette smuggling has become so lucrative that organized crime is getting involved, and many former drug dealers have switched to peddling contraband smokes instead of narcotics because the penalties if they get caught are much lighter.

Bootleggers can buy a pack of premium cigarettes for about $5.55 in Virginia, which has the nation's second-lowest tobacco tax, and sell it for a big profit on the black market in New York City, where cigarettes cost about $14 a pack.

A common form of smuggling is called "smurfing." Individual bootleggers or small groups buy cartons of cigarettes at multiple locations throughout the day, then haul them out of state for resale on the black market. The commission's study found than a van load of smokes can turn a $170,000 profit.

One of Howell's bills targets smurfing by increasing the penalty for illegally possessing with intent to distribute more than 25 cartons of cigarettes. For 500 or more cartons, the offense would be a felony.

Other bills would increase the penalties for trafficking in untaxed and counterfeit cigarettes, allow cigarette smugglers to be prosecuted under the state conspiracy law, and expand the government's authority to seize illegally trafficked smokes.

The measures were advanced with little debate to the Finance Committee, which will assess their effects on the state budget.

The committee also endorsed a measure calling for a new law against financial exploitation of Virginians whose mental capacity is diminished by advanced age, illness or defect. Legislation dealing with the issue has failed several years in a row as lawmakers struggled to protect the vulnerable without making criminals out of well-intentioned caregivers and others.

Virginia prosecutors have had to rely on more general larceny, fraud, embezzlement and check forgery statutes to go after people who target people suffering from dementia or other mental infirmities. Prosecutors say that without a law specifically addressing such crimes, it can be tough to get convictions if the victim went along with the perpetrator's scam.

"For those of you who don't walk the dark pathways some of us associated with the criminal justice system do, it is a horrible, horrible situation," said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Louisa and a former prosecutor.

The bill makes it a crime to knowingly obtain an incapacitated person's property through deception, intimidation, coercion, harassment or misrepresentation. The offense would be a felony if the amount of the loss exceeded $200.

According to the state Department of Social Services the number of substantiated reports of financial exploitation of seniors and mentally incapacitated adults increased from 756 in 2009 to 1,036 last year.

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