A traffic stop for a seatbelt violation led to the arrest of an alleged "runner" for a supplier for bodegas and variety stores from Fairfield County to New York who was possessing illegal cigarettes and gambling records, police said.
The stop took place around 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 7, when Stamford Police Officer Christopher Felman-Merced was enforcing seat belt violations in the area of Canal/Jefferson streets when he noticed a driver, later identified as Luis Miguel Pena-Ramos, 32, driving without his seatbelt, said Stamford Police Capt. Diedrich Hohn.
During the stop, the officer noticed that Pena-Ramos was unusually nervous for just a violation. During the course of the stop, Pena-Ramos consented to a search of his vehicle, Hohn said.
While searching the vehicle the officer found a large number of cigarettes inside numerous black trash bags in the trunk.
Pena-Ramos then distanced himself from his knowledge of cigarettes in the vehicle and the officer knew something was amiss, Hohn added.
The officer also discovered numerous records with names and numbers on them which is consistent with “illegal numbers”. Also discovered were several bank account records and paraphernalia for holding the policy slips of the gambling number.
Upon further examination, all of the packs of cigarettes had the same tax stamp affixed to every box of cigarette even though they were from different manufacturers. Backup officers were called as well as agents from the state Department of Revenue Services.
They analyzed the tax stamps and confirmed that they were in fact fraudulent. All of the cigarettes, cash, and gambling records were seized and Pena-Ramos was arrested.
Pena-Ramos was charged with possession of untaxed cigarettes, fraudulent stamps, and possession of gambling records. He was also ticketed for failure to wear a seatbelt.
Items seized during the stop included 149 cartons of cigarettes worth approximately $15,000 and more than $780 in cash.
"We believe that Pena-Ramos is a 'runner' for a larger group that is supplying bodegas and variety stores from Bridgeport to New York," Hohn said. "We have seen a resurgence of illegal numbers and untaxed cigarettes in the Stamford area in the last few years."
Hohn also said the gambling has become popular in the immigrant communities due to the fact that they are not regulated and therefore wins are not taxed and no ID is needed to claim the prize. The prize payout is usually more than the state lottery and you are able to play in different money denominations.
"Fraudulent cigarettes are obviously becoming popular due to the heavy taxes levied on cigarettes and therefore a carton of cigarettes is usually 50 percent cheaper on the black market," he added. "The Stamford Police would like to recognize Officer Felman-Merced for his vigilance for turning a simple motor vehicle stop into a seizure of illegal items sold and promoted in an unregulated industry whose main gain is to defraud the state out of revenue."
Pena-Ramos is being held on $25,000 bond.
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