Sentencing delayed in cigarette trafficking
A 30-year-old Palestinian who helped illegally traffic at least $9.5 million in cigarettes from Virginia to other states almost avoided any jail time Thursday.
Issa Qatrawi, pleaded guilty in federal court in September to a charge of conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes, admitting that from June to August 2015 he used business membership accounts to buy 2,085 cartons of cigarettes from Virginia wholesale club stores and then illegally trafficked for resale in other states.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for a jail term of six to 12 months. But, describing him as a bit player and easy mark for recruitment when he entered the U.S. in June, 2015, the government asked he be given 36-months of probation.
That did not sit well with U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne, who pointed out that Qatrawi was arrested on a felony cigarette trafficking charge in Henrico last May, long after his August 2015 arrest in the federal case.
“We don’t have all the cards on the table,” said Payne, who asked the U.S. attorney’s office and Qatrawi’s lawyers to report back on the Henrico charge, which is set to be tried on Feb. 2. Payne then reset Qatrawi’s federal sentencing for March 9 and allowed him to remain free on bond until then.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed in the case, Qatrawi was born in a refugee camp in Jericho in the West Bank and came to the U.S. for a better life and to obtain help for his blind son. A codefendant allegedly drew him into the trafficking scheme.
The government conceded that Qatrawi was a low-level, late recruit to the conspiracy that involved the creation of fraudulent Virginia businesses with the Virginia Department of Taxation, allowing them to buy cigarettes from the wholesale clubs without paying Virginia sales tax.
Qatrawi, wrote the government to the court, “had been in the United States only a matter of days before he was recruited into the conspiracy. He spoke very little English, and his employment prospects were limited. He was an easy target for recruitment.”
Citing his cooperation and remorse, both the government and Qatrawi’s lawyer suggested a sentence of probation.
Last month, Laila Alayat, a 37-year-old New Jersey woman with mental health issues, was sentenced to 16 months by Payne in connection with the conspiracy.
Alayat pleaded guilty in June to charges of conspiracy to traffic in contraband cigarettes and witness tampering. Eyad Salahedin, 39, also of New Jersey, is set to be sentenced next month.
The long-running contraband cigarette racket is made possible by the widely ranging cigarette excise taxes between states. Virginia has a tax of $3 per carton — secondlowest in the country — while the tax in New Jersey is $27 a carton. In nearby New York City, the combined city and state tax is $58.50 per carton.