Burned by excessive punishment

Brian Jones
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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

at bjones@thetelegram.com

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Recent comments

  • Virginia Waters
    May 02, 2014 - 10:05

    You might not be aware of it Brian, but Canada's tobacco industry has had a long history aiding and abetting the smuggling of cigarettes across borders in an effort to evade taxes. Beyond that however I want to point out that your article fails to deliver on what I thought to be the premise of your headline - excessive punishment. Whether the cases that repeatedly wind up on your front pages (stopped motorist found to owe thousands in outstanding fines) result from excessive punishment, it is certainly unproductive punishment. Public pressure on politicians and lawmakers to jack-up punishments across the board has resulted in jails that are filled, fines that go unpaid, and a growing segment of society that operates below the radar. Given that assets employed in crime are often seized and forfeited, it is highly unlikely that anyone fined $187,000 is ever going to pay it. If he does, it's only because he decides to double down - that is, re-engage in criminal activity. More often they simply opt out of society (as we know it) and go the urban-survivalist, illicit, non-contributing, taxpayer-draining welfare route. What the hell does that accomplish in the long run. The Harper Government has virtually abandoned the principle of rehabilitation in favour of building more jails and incarcerating offenders for longer periods of time. His plan to impose higher minimum sentences has just been knocked back by the Supreme Court. The possible solutions would take more space than this allows, but it's worth while to at least pose the question. A concept that our governments and society itself have yet to embrace is that preventing bad decisions is ultimately far cheaper than dealing with their consequences. This is a truism that applies not only to the administration of justice, but health, education and even industrial development. The bottom line is that we need to find better ways to prevent criminal activity and to modify the behaviour of those who engage it it.