As six armed officers pour out of two unmarked Ford Explorers on a Long Island City street corner, you can see the confusion on the faces of gawkers and passersby. One woman looks up from her phone and does a sitcom-worthy double-take when she notices their windbreakers, embossed with the word "SHERIFF" in big gold letters, front and back.
That might be because few have ever heard of the New York City Sheriff's Office. But those who have know what happens next. And, not surprisingly, when they burst into a corner store near 40th Avenue and 21st Street, the clerk seems not at all shocked, nor particularly concerned, to see them. This is not his first rodeo, as it were.
The team, part of the department's tobacco inspection detail, is suddenly everywhere inside the store. They immediately head behind the counter, where cigarettes are displayed in plastic racks on the back wall.
They shoo the clerk from his perch by the register; he saunters over to lean on the edge of the ice cream cooler at the center of the store, already looking genuinely bored. He doesn't even watch the action — he peers at his phone, taking occasional bites out of the sandwich in his other hand or sipping Pepsi through a straw from a can. One of the deputies tells him to stay right there, and to put his phone down.
The inspection crew is quick and efficient. One uses an iPad to snap pictures of the store's interior while the others begin to rummage behind the counter. They're looking for one thing — untaxed cigarettes smuggled in from out of state. Within moments they find what they're looking for, in the form of several cartons tucked underneath the counter. In all, they discover 56 packs of Newports and Marlboros, all of which bear small tax stamps from states outside of New York, which means they cannot be sold here.
Even many smokers don't take much notice of these little emblems, known formally as tax indices, but they're the focus of all this excitement. New York tax stamps are a burnt-orange color, but most of the packs on the counter today bear gray stamps that say "Virginia." There's one from Georgia, too. This does not bode well for the clerk. Since this is Queens, and not Arlington or Savannah, offering those cigarettes for sale is a misdemeanor.
Behind the counter, deputies are knocking on every surface, searching for anything that sounds hollow. The more careful owners, deputies say, often have "traps" where they stash larger quantities of cigarettes. Soon one of the deputies pulls up a plank on the lowest shelf, just behind the register. It's not nailed down, and underneath there's a small space with room enough for a few cartons of smokes. It qualifies as a trap, but it's not very impressive. Some of the traps the team discovers are outfitted with hinges or sliding drawers, elaborate camouflage. But not here. The space is empty.
No matter — the 56 packs are enough to land the clerk in some bit of trouble. He takes a bite of his sandwich as one investigator, "Leticia" — since the team often operates undercover, the Voice
is changing the names of deputies at the request of the sheriff's department — begins putting the screws to him. The clerk says he doesn't know how the out-of-state cigarettes got into the store.
You work here — she asks, in a voice thick with disbelief — and you don't know where they come from?
Leticia is 26 years old, with two years on the job, a Glock on her hip, and hair smoothed back in a tight ponytail. She's wearing body armor and her silver badge is clipped in the center of the vest, just below her chin.
I'm just an employee. the clerk says, and makes a gesture with his sandwich. I just sell them. Everybody sells them in this neighborhood. He glances again at his phone and Leticia tells him, for the third or fourth time, to put it down.
The clerk is right. Every corner store and bodega in the city seems to be selling untaxed cigarettes. And not just in this neighborhood, but all over New York City. It's a veritable epidemic of tax-avoidance. By some estimates, 60 percent of cigarettes sold in the five boroughs are untaxed, ill-gotten by one avenue or another. And this is certainly no secret. As far as black markets go, the smuggled-cigarette trade in New York City is as open as they come.
As Leticia babysits the clerk, the other deputies keep looking for hidden stashes. Increasingly, the cigarettes they uncover during their inspections bear counterfeit markings — stamps that look like they're from New York but are actually fakes. So part of what the team does on each operation is to examine even legitimate-looking packs, typically on the rack behind the counter.
As one member of the team methodically pulls the packs from their plastic homes, another deputy uses a small penlight with a special beam to inspect the stamps. The ink on each marking should reflect pink if it's genuine.
In this case, they all come up clean, and Leticia starts recording the clerk's information. He'll receive a summons, but won't end up in handcuffs, although sometimes people do. He keeps messing with his phone, and Leticia finally plucks the thing out of his hand.
Who knows whom he might have been trying to call, she would reflect later. Store owners often keep their main stash offsite. He could have been signaling someone to hide more cigarettes that were tucked away in the store's basement or in an employee's car outside. The clerk's phone call might also have posed a safety issue, she says. No, they've never had an inspection turn violent. But you never know. Occasionally, they find more than untaxed cigarettes. Not long ago, one deputy says, they found some heroin, a few pills of molly, and a loaded .38 in a bodega not far from here.
The clerk is handed his summons — he'll have to appear in court in a month or so. Asked what he thinks about all this — the armed agents barging into his store and pawing through his merch — he gestures again with the sandwich and shakes his head wearily. "I hate it," he says with a deep sigh.