There was rage and disgust this week when the RNC announced that a driver with a suspended licence had been busted and found to have more than $160,000 in outstanding fines.
The reaction was predictable. People are regularly hauled to the curb and discovered to owe $20,000 or $30,000 or more in traffic fines. How such people continue to be licensed or get away with driving for months or years without a licence is a mystery yet to be explained by either the cops or the motor vehicles division.
But the gist of the story about the guy owing $160K quickly changed. Apparently, the fines weren’t racked up via illegal parking or speeding. He had been fined for possession of contraband tobacco.
More specifically, he had been convicted in 2008 and fined a total of $187,597.
Presumably, he paid off about $27,000 in the intervening six years, although the police report was vague on that point.
More pointedly, readers of the daily headlines might wonder, “What the heck is contraband tobacco?”
After all, tobacco is a legal substance. You can buy it in stores. Governments haul in admirable quantities of funds by taxing it. It used to be featured regularly in movies when a character needed to be portrayed as tough or cool, prior to our timid era, which requires messages such as, “Warning: scenes of tobacco usage.”
Contrary to first impressions, contraband tobacco does not involve a swashbuckling fellow with an eye-patch swinging a sword while sucking on a cigarette.
More blandly, but accurately, contraband tobacco is tobacco that the government has not given you permission to possess.
And, as far as penalties go in the Canadian justice system, you’re almost better off committing manslaughter than possessing contraband tobacco.
The punishment for having contraband tobacco in your pocket or in your car trunk is outlined in the federal Excise Act.
People who are busted and convicted of possessing contraband tobacco can get up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $500,000.
This is no idle threat, as the guy who was fined $187,597 learned.
He reportedly had 114 kilograms of “fine-cut tobacco” — the good stuff — as well as about 1,400 cigarettes. Either he was hopelessly addicted, or he was an avid participant in the underground economy.
His tobacco was illegal because it wasn’t “stamped.” That doesn’t mean delivery by Canada Post — although sometimes it is, and is then intercepted by cops or border agents, leading to yet another headline about a contraband tobacco bust.
As described in S. 2 of the Excise Act, stamped, “in respect of a tobacco product, means that all prescribed information in a prescribed format is, in the prescribed manner, stamped, impressed, printed or marked on, indented into or affixed to the product or its container to indicate that duty, other than special duty, has been paid on the product.”
In common language, “stamped” means taxes have been paid.
Possession of contraband, unstamped, illegal, illicit but eminently smoke-able tobacco is essentially a tax-evasion crime.
As might be expected in these tough-on-crime times, there is a group advocating a clampdown on this scourge. It is called the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco. Its membership includes — unsurprisingly — the four major cigarette makers in Canada, via the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council.
Governments want their cut — or else! — and they have the support of cigarette makers to get it.
Strangely enough, all 10 provinces have lawsuits — launched or pending — against those same cigarette makers to recoup millions of dollars spent on health care to treat illnesses caused by tobacco use.
There’s some serious hypocrisy happening here, not to mention transgression of the principle that punishment should fit the crime.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at
The Telegram. He can be reached