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The unanticipated costs of enforcing certain criminal laws

The state of Virginia has recently announced that it will be cracking down on illegal cigarette sales. Some individuals or criminal organizations allegedly buy cigarettes in bulk in Virginia, where the tax is only $3 a carton, smuggle them to New York, where the tax is $44 a carton, and sell them directly to consumers for slightly less than what they would cost locally. The enterprise is said to be more profitable than trafficking in harder drugs.

The practice of selling illegal cigarettes came back into the national spotlight when an African-American man named Eric Garner died from a police choke hold when officers attempted to arrest him for selling "loosies" (individual cigarettes not in a pack) in Staten Island. The issue of whether they might have been able to subdue Garner without resorting to a choke hold that resulted in his death exacerbated the “Black Lives Matter” controversy that has been flaring across the United States.

The incident raised another issue of deadly force, albeit accidental, in a situation in which no threat of bodily harm existed. Garner was committing a minor crime and he did allegedly resist arrest, another crime. But unlike assaulting a police officer with deadly force, neither act should have reasonably ended in the death of a suspect.

To be sure, this promised crackdown on illegal cigarettes is not directly related to incidents like the one that resulted in Garner's death. However, a crackdown on illegal cigarette sales will likely lead to more confrontations between law enforcement officers and street vendors, and every such interaction is an opportunity for things to get out of hand.

A great many practices have been criminalized in the United States, and enforcement of criminal laws is complicated by the porous borders between states with vastly different prices for certain goods. While police have an obligation to enforce laws and catch those who violate them, it is crucial that enforcement efforts are conducted only in the public interest and with a sharp focus on public safety. Enforcing cigarette tax laws is not worth taking a life when the alleged criminal does not pose a direct threat.

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