Smaller Thefts and Violence

Martin & Snyder also has customers who need to fear theft and violence because they pick up their own products at the warehouse in "cash-and-carry" business transactions. In August 2005, one customer of Martin & Snyder was hijacked after making a purchase of tobacco products from the wholesaler. His automobile and cigarettes were stolen, and he was shot three times. While the customer survived the shooting and remains a customer of Martin & Snyder, the shooting cost him a kidney. [144]

Even gas stations have become locations of cigarette-related violence. For instance, in the early morning hours of April 8, 2002, a Farmington Hills police officer, in uniform but sitting in an unmarked car, saw a man break a window and steal 250 packs of cigarettes from a gas station. Sighting the officer's uniform, the man rammed the driver's side of the officer's cruiser as he attempted to get away. The officer escaped from his car and attempted to stop the suspect from leaving by reaching for the suspect's car keys. The thief began to drive off, and the officer was dragged about 20 feet before falling clear. The suspect escaped, but was later captured.[145] Police identified the suspect as a drug addict "committing smash-and-grab burglaries to sustain his habit — trading the cigarettes for crack."[146]


So common is cigarette smuggling and related theft in Michigan that the practice has entered American pop culture. Eddie Murphy's 1984 smash hit "Beverly Hills Cop" and Will Ferrell's 2007 "Blades of Glory" both make Michigan-specific references to smuggling cigarettes.

One scene from "Beverly Hills Cop" actually shows Murphy's character, a Detroit detective working undercover, discussing the value of his stolen cigarettes, which he carefully points out already display the government tax stamp. In another scene Murphy's boss asks him where he obtained the truckload of cigarettes to run his sting, and Murphy's response is "from the Dearborn hijacking,"[*] making the case that life does imitate art on occasion.[†]

In the comedy "Blades of Glory," a narrator tells the audience that the character Chazz Michael Michaels was "spawned in the hell fires of Motown" and "at age 12 Chazz escaped the life of running cigarettes and illegal fireworks" in Detroit.

Another popular technique or "channel" for trafficking in contraband cigarettes by individual store owners is to acquire untaxed cigarettes and then sell them illegally as single sticks for 50 cents each. This eliminates the need for counterfeit stamps and can produce gross profits of $10 per pack. It is probably harder to move higher volumes, but the potential profits involved still make trade in single sticks worthwhile for many. One of the authors has even seen a sign posted in a
Flint Township convenience store pre-emptively warning that no single cigarette sales are made there.[147]

A February 2007 incident report from the Michigan State Police contains an amusing example of single sale cigarettes. A police investigation of a convenience store uncovered 34 cartons and 23 packs of cigarettes with counterfeit stamps. The police also uncovered a box of roughly 35 cigarettes, which the owner admitted to selling as single sticks. According to the police report, the suspect "dismissed it as no big deal" when the police officer explained to him that such single-stick sales were illegal.[148]

On March 14, 2008, the Detroit Free Press reported that in 2007, the state arrested more than 41 people and seized 4,700 cartons of cigarettes, resulting in penalties and fines of $1.8 million.[149] The story relates how one store owner visited by the state's Southeastern Tobacco Tax Team (a unit of the Michigan State Police) possessed no illicit cigarettes or other tobacco products but was selling single sticks and was duly ticketed. The story continues:

Earlier that day, the unit inspected two Detroit gas stations and found no illegal tobacco. One station owner said he has been approached by people offering to sell him illegal, cheap cigarettes out of vans or cars.
"I don't need trouble. For what, to save $1 or $2?" [he] said, ... though he would not divulge the identity of the sellers. [His] store was ticketed for selling individual cigarettes to customers, a civil infraction. [Lt. Detective Judith] Anderson [of the Michigan State Police] said smugglers hurt legitimate businesses that lose customers to cheaper cigarettes sold by cheating competitors. She said her crew deters some smuggling and added, "Retailers know we're out there."[150]

Anderson is probably right: Most retailers do know, but evidence indicates that many are taking their chances anyway. The state's five-member Southeastern Tobacco Tax Team must combat large numbers of casual and large-scale smugglers working to undermine state law. The team does rely on contributions from other law enforcement agencies.

[144] George Daiza, co-owner of Martin & Snyder Products Sales, interview by author Michael LaFaive, February 12, 2008.

[145] John Masson, “Cop is Hit, Dragged, But Man is Caught,” Detroit Free Press, April 8, 2002, 4B.

[146] Ibid.

[147] Personal observation of Michael LaFaive, June 7, 2008.

[148] Michigan Department of State Police, Incident Report #CTT-0000042-07 (TT), February 14, 2007, 2.

[149] Chris Christoff, “Michigan’s $140 million smuggling Problem: Illegal Tobacco Sales Hurt State,” Detroit Free Press, March 14, 2008.

[150] Ibid.

[*] We interviewed Beverly Hills Cop screenwriter Dan Petry, curious as to why illicit cigarettes and Dearborn were cited in the movie. Petry does not recall what led him to reference Dearborn but explained that while growing up on the East Coast, he had frequently heard of truck hijackings and illegal cigarette sales. Moreover, for the opening chase scene cigarettes were convenient stolen property, as the Murphy character could be thrown around the truck without suffering injuries from, say, falling televisions.

[†] Another movie with a significant stolen cigarette scene is the 1990 mobster movie "Goodfellas," starring Ray Liotta. The mob's role in reselling stolen goods is legendary. One of the first police arrests of John "Teflon Don" Gotti in 1968 was over his hijacking a truck carrying $50,000 (about $310,000 today) in cigarettes on the New Jersey Turnpike.