PERRYVILLE — Two men are facing criminal charges after investigators caught them allegedly smuggling more than 8,000 packs of unstamped cigarettes — with a retail value in excess of $77,000 — during a traffic stop near Perryville, according to Cecil County District Court records.
Investigators identified the suspects as Alston Troy Powell, 52; and Nino De Jesus Espinal-Perez, 46, both of Bridgeport, Conn.
Maryland State Police Tfc. Warrenfeltz started his investigation at approximately 1 a.m. on Friday, after stopping a white Nissan van in the northbound lane of Interstate 95, north of the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge toll plaza and south of the Route 222 interchange, because the vehicle had a malfunctioning tag light, police reported.
Powell was driving the van, and Espinal-Perez was his front-seat passenger, police said. Warrenfeltz dispatched MSP Trooper Alexandridis to assist him in the traffic-stop investigation, police added.
“The operator and passenger were both visibly nervous. They both avoided eye contact . . . and the driver’s hands were visibly shaking while providing documents. Tfc. Warrenfeltz observed a black sheet that was covering what appeared to be several large, square boxes (in the back of the van),” court records outline.
Alexandridis noticed “multiple criminal indicators,” as did Warrenfeltz, according to charging documents, which, as an example, indicate that Espinal-Perez would not answer questions asked by Alexandridis but, instead, would look toward Powell in the driver’s seat.
“The (suspects) advised that the rear of the vehicle contained groceries. (The suspects) advised that they were coming from Winston-Salem, N.C., and they were there for two days to visit family. Trooper Alexandridis advised that the subjects did not have any luggage present in the vehicle to indicate this long trip,” according to charging documents.
Investigators conducted a probable-cause search of the van, after a specially-trained scent dog handled by Cpl. Lathroum of the Havre de Grace Police Department alerted to the presence of alleged contraband during a sniff-scan outside the vehicle, police reported.
During the search, investigators seized 8,290 packs of cigarettes that have a retail value of $77,014, court records allege.
“A random sampling of the cigarettes determined they did not contain a tax stamp,” according to charging documents.
A Maryland Alcohol and Tobacco Commission agent was dispatched and handled the processing of the confiscated cigarettes.
Powell and Espinal-Perez are each charged with transporting unstamped cigarettes, a felony that is punishable by up to two years in prison, and possession of more than 30 cartons of unstamped cigarettes, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum three-month sentence, court records show.
Scheduled for April 26 preliminary hearings, Powell and Espinal-Perez are free on unsecured $10,000 bonds, according to court records.
A great disparity in state cigarette taxes and prices, particularly between southern and northern states, has created a black market.
In a typical practice, a person will buy a bulk quantity of cigarettes in Virginia or North Carolina, where taxes and prices are comparatively low, and then drive them to New Jersey, New York and points north, where taxes and prices are much higher. Then the person will sell those cigarettes at a discounted price and still see a significant profit.
As for the Cecil County criminal case against Powell and Espinal-Perez, investigators allege in charging documents that the confiscated 8,290 packs of cigarettes translate to a $31,087 tax loss for the State of Maryland.