Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tennessee ... the new "taxing" police state.

Captain Ed tips me off to the moronic inanity of some officials in Tennessee. See, Tennessee recently raised their cigarette taxes. So what are smokers doing? They're going to neighboring states to buy them. That wasn't sitting well with some in the state government so they have decided to go the Gestapo route to enforce their taxes:

Starting today, state Department of Revenue agents will begin stopping Tennessee motorists spotted buying large quantities of cigarettes in border states, then charging them with a crime and, in some cases, seizing their cars.

Critics say the new “cigarette surveillance program” amounts to the use of “police state” tactics and wrongfully interferes with interstate commerce. But state Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr says his department is simply doing its job, enforcing a valid state law while protecting Tennessee retailers who properly pay state taxes.

Agents have already been watching out-of-state stores that sell cigarettes near the Tennessee border to “get a feel where problem areas are,” Farr said.

While declining to be specific, the commissioner said “problem areas” are generally along interstate highways with exits near the Tennessee border.

The idea is for the monitoring agent to spot a person buying cigarettes in volume at an out-of-state market, then departing in a vehicle with Tennessee license tags. Starting today, monitoring agents spotting such a suspect will call an arresting agent who will stop the car when it enters Tennessee, he said.

The agents will work “in roving teams at random times,” he said.

“This shows once again that Reagan Farr and the Department of Revenue are more interested in turning Tennessee into a police state than doing their job of collecting taxes,” said Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

And if you think that your punishment will be a fine or a ticket, think again. Farr is "serious" abut breaking provisions of the Constitution:

Under state law, bringing more than two cartons of cigarettes into the state without paying Tennessee taxes is a “Class B” misdemeanor, carrying punishment of up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. Bringing 25 or more cartons is a “Class E” felony, with minimum penalty of one year in prison and a maximum of six years plus a fine of up to $3,000.

In addition, the specific state statute dealing with untaxed cigarettes provides that vehicles used to transport more than two cartons “are considered contraband and are subject to seizure,” says a Department of Revenue statement.

Farr said that agents have been instructed to seize any vehicle carrying more than 25 cartons of cigarettes without Tennessee tax stamps. In cases where three to 24 cartons are involved, he said vehicle seizure is “at the officer’s discretion.”

So, the state of Tennessee has decided to violate the essence of interstate commerce, as well as the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. Tobacco, like it or not, is a legal item for purchase, provided you are 18 years old and above. You can't criminalize something that is perfectly legal. In this case, cigarettes and other tobacco products are legal. It's also legal to purchase such items from another state.

If this were about fireworks, which are illegal in many states, that would be different (but only if they were illegal in Tennessee). But this isn't about an illegal item that has been purchased. These are legal products that anyone of the right age can buy. Furthermore, it's illegal for state officials to begin surveillance of Tennessee residents in bordering states. Their jurisdiction, unless agreed upon by said neighboring state, ends at the Tennessee border.

When the first legal challenge pops up, someone's head is going to roll, and it should be Farr's. He is knowingly and willfully committing unconstitutional acts to enforce a tax that resident smokers in Tennessee find appalling. I used to smoke, so I understand how smokers get ticked when they're slapped with a unfair, discriminatory tax. (Right now, the federal government is considering an $8 per carton tax on cigarettes, which unless it can be killed in Congress, it will affect all smokers across the country.)

While I'm on this, let me drag out my soapbox for just a second here. My disdain for cigarette taxers knows no end. In Arizona we have seen three separate ballot propositions get passed that raises cigarette taxes here. For the life of me, I can't see how many stupid people vote for a voluntary tax. I know that many people say "Hey, I don't smoke and it doesn't affect me." Au contraire, genius. Since the last raise in cigarette taxes in Arizona, revenues for tobacco products have gone down. Smokers are quitting, cutting back, or going to cheaper methods such as "roll-your-own."

Those in the Arizona Department of Revenue are whining that their tax coffers aren't being filled. So, what are they doing? They're looking for new things to tax, or new ways to raise taxes. For the last four years residents have fought against the legislature and their own city councils when it comes to raising property taxes. When the cigarette tax initiative came around last year, state representatives said this was the alternative to raising property taxes. The populace fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Now, they want to raise property taxes because the cigarette tax just wasn't enough for them.

Granted, Arizona isn't going to go the route of Tennessee, but this little fiasco in Arizona presents a clear and concise picture for other people: When the government learns that it can't get it's tax revenues from bad habits because people can't afford those bad habits any longer, they look for something new to tax. Don't be a dope and vote for a voluntary tax. The next time the tax issue comes around, you mind out that it's not as voluntary as you once believed.

Publius II


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