Last updated: May 7, 2010
Source: Hong Kong Government News
One of New York’s biggest cigarette dealers was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison in a case involving the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of untaxed tobacco from the state’s Indian reservations.
Rodney Morrison, 43, was originally accused in 2004 of running a violent criminal enterprise that was one of the leading sources for New York’s huge trade in black market cigarettes.
But after being acquitted of murder, robbery and arson, and having a racketeering conviction stemming from the tax case tossed out because of legal flaws, Morrison faced sentencing only on a single gun possession count. In addition to the 10-year term, Morrison was fined $75,000 and will be placed on three years supervised release when he leaves prison.
He could have been released on time served, but U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley gave him the maximum, saying “he has failed to lead any kind of law abiding life.”
Despite Morrison’s acquittal, the judge said he still believes Morrison orchestrated the crimes that were committed by others, including the 2003 shooting death of a rival cigarette dealer on a Brooklyn rooftop.
“I think he is fully capable of doing those types of things again,” the judge said. He also noted Morrison’s prior convictions for robbery, drug possession and criminally negligent homicide in the 1980s shooting of a 6-year-old.
Before being sentenced, Morrison told the judge the child’s killing was unintentional; he said he and a friend were firing a shotgun for target practice. “We were young and being foolish, it was totally a freak accident.”
He also appealed to the judge that he is a changed man. “I have learned from the experience,” he said. “I have respect for the law.”
Morrison’s lawyers said they will consider appealing the sentence. “Although we all disagree with the sentence, we have enormous respect for Judge Hurley,” lead attorney William Murphy said.
Because Morrison has been held without bail since his arrest in August 2004, that time will be applied to the 10-year sentence, officials said. Hurley also granted a defense request that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons place Morrison at a facility close to the New York metropolitan area so he can be close to his family.
Hurley, who previously described Morrison as “a cunning individual with dangerous proclivities,” vacated his racketeering conviction for trafficking contraband cigarettes on April 16. Hurley said too many elements of state laws regarding reservation tobacco sales were unsettled to prosecute someone.
Federal prosecutors appealed that ruling on Friday. Neither assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case commented after the sentencing.
Reservation stores sold more than 24 million cartons of cigarettes in 2009, about 1 out of every 3 packs sold in the state. That booming business exists entirely because of the tribes refusal to collect taxes on the sales, allowing them to sell at a huge discount.
Morrison is a non-Indian from Brooklyn who gained control of a reservation smoke shop on the Poospatuck Indian Reservation in Mastic after marrying into the tribe. The reservation is about 60 miles east of New York City.
State law requires taxes to be paid on any packs not sold to tribe members, but New York suspended attempts to enforce that rule after it prompted unrest on the reservations in the 1990s. The tribes have fiercely resisted attempts to tax cigarettes as an attack on their sovereignty.
That lack of enforcement has left the courts conflicted about whether merchants are still obligated to collect the tax, and whether they can be prosecuted if they don’t.
Written by Frank Eltman