The recent string of cigarette thefts in North Fresno may have been nipped in the bud.
But the crazy dynamics of cigarette regulation and consumption? That’s going to be with us for a while.
Fresno police this week announced that they have arrested two adults allegedly responsible for stealing cigarettes and lottery tickets from North Fresno retailers.
Police said the suspects are Keith Christensen, 30, and Sierra Baize, 38.
Chief Jerry Dyer and Lt. Joe Gomez at the department’s monthly Crime View news conference earlier this month reviewed what was, at the time, an open investigation into the crime spree.
In a nutshell, police had reports dating back to mid-June of cigarette-focused burglaries at various gas stations and convenience stores in North Fresno. Some businesses had been hit more than once. Security camera footage indicated that at least one of the burglars was a male wearing a hooded sweatshirt. His mode of transportation included a bicycle.
The male was recorded grabbing as many cartons of cigarettes as his arms could carry, then stuffing them in a knapsack. The Chief had no problem coming up with a motive: Cigarettes are expensive; there’s a bustling black market out there for a fenced pack or carton.
According to a police news release, Christensen and Baize were nabbed thanks to a plan developed by investigative units in the Northwest and Northeast policing stations. Patrol units and the Career Criminal Apprehension Team were key players in the effort. The plan included surveillance, informants and “good old fashioned investigative police work,” police said.
Police said officers began to zero in on Christensen and Baize in mid-July. A turning point was when police identified a grey Nissan Altima as the get-away car. Police said the Altima belongs to Baize, who allegedly was behind the steering wheel when Christensen allegedly did his looting.
Christensen, police said, “would force open the closed businesses and steal numerous cartons of cigarettes and lottery tickets. Both suspects would then flee in the Nissan.”
Police said Christensen preferred to scoop up cartons of Marloros.
Police said officers nabbed Christensen and Baize on the night of July 22. Baize was driving. They were caught at the intersection of Palm and Herndon avenues.
Police said Christensen admitted to six commercial burglaries (two were attempted burglaries), while Baize admitted to being the get-away driver in three cases (one was an attempted burglary).
According to the police news release: “The Nissan duo typically would drive around looking for potential targets; they often would stop, wait and then drive around some more. It appears they were doing counter surveillance, or just tweaking on methamphetamine. After the morning operation shift, the Nissan crew would either go to a residence – they stayed at three different ones at any given time – or drive around most of the day pulling into random parking lots looking for vehicles to break into. It appears they really don’t have a place of their own and are staying with friends. They are essentially homeless.”
Police are asking anyone with additional information regarding the activities of Christensen and Baize to call Crime Stoppers at (559) 498-STOP.
To which I say: Well done, Fresno Police Department.
But the end of the tobacco political/regulation/crime battle is nowhere in sight. How could it be otherwise?
Taxes jack up the price of a pack of cigarettes to at least the $8-$10 range in California. Budget-minded smokers have a strong incentive to get their daily fix on the black market. Criminals have a strong incentive to keep product flowing through this black market. Politicians have a strong incentive to channel purchases into a managed system that makes the collection of cigarette taxes easy. These same politicians have a strong incentive to make pious sermons about the evils of smoking while spending cigarette tax funds on high-profile social programs that tend to generate voter approval.
What a complex and never-ending policy drama!
I give you two examples of the role of tobacco in everyday American life.
First, the Fresno City Council on Thursday will be asked to authorize Chief Dyer to accept $129,155 in state grant money for the funding of tobacco-related enforcement programs. We’re talking mainly about efforts to make sure the 668 retailers licensed to sell tobacco products in Fresno conduct their transactions legally.
Deputy Chief Andy Hall’s report to the council states: “Sales of tobacco to minors and furnishing tobacco related products to minors remains among the top tobacco-related concerns of the community and law enforcement. Undercover operations have shown that licensees continue to sell tobacco to minors, and adults occasionally purchase tobacco products for minors in violation of the law. These (police enforcement) operations serve to identify violators, hold (them) accountable and discourage others from selling to minors.”
Hall said the Police Department in 2017 received about 500 calls for service related to tobacco complaints/violations, an increase of 7% from the 2016. A lot of these calls involved minors hanging around cigarette-selling retailers located near schools.
Clearly, the underage kids were looking for morality-challenged buyers.
Second, The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday published a fascinating story by reporter Anne Kadet. The headline: “The Rising Cost of Cigarettes Doesn’t Stop All Smokers.”
Kadet takes a look at the impact on consumption patterns of New York City’s recent decision to raise the minimum price of a pack of cigarettes from $10.50 to $13.
New York City health officials estimate that there are about 867,000 adult smokers in the city, Kadet writes. City Hall’s goal is to reduce that number by 160,000 over the next 18 months.
“It won’t be easy,” Kadet writes. “I spent a morning last week chatting with smokers on Wall Street who were puffing in front of their office buildings. Of the 10 I interviewed, only two said they paid full price for cigarettes at the store.”
Kadet goes on to note that NYC smokers have lots of buying options. These include trips to nearby states with lower cigarette taxes, Indian reservations and small retailers who, apparently, are ignoring the new pricing law.
New York City Hall’s idea is to make cigarettes an oppressively expensive habit. Will it work? Kadet cites statistical and anecdotal evidence to suggest it will, but only a little. After all, Kadet notes, smokers are addicts.
In conclusion, Kadet cites a study by the Tax Foundation that estimates that the black-market accounts for about 57% of the state of New York’s cigarette consumption. That is No. 1 in the nation.
I took a look at that Tax Foundation study. It estimates that the black market in 2015 accounted for 28.3% of California’s cigarette consumption, seventh highest in America. California’s cigarette taxes at the time were 87 cents per pack. That number has since jumped to $2.87 per pack.
Add it all up and I predict we haven’t seen the last of cigarette issues at Chief Dyer’s Crime View news conferences.