Tribe: Cigarette seizures infringe on sovereignty

By DAN ROBLEE

droblee@mininggazette.com

BARAGA – The Michigan State Police have seized two shipments of untaxed cigarettes headed to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, confiscating 184 cases. The tribe has responded with a press release declaring the seizures an infringement of tribal sovereignty and a violation of state and federal law, potentially setting the stage for a legal battle over tribal rights and state policies.

The seizures took place Feb. 9 and first came to light Tuesday when the KBIC issued its release, declaring “the KBIC will not be bullied by these illegal seizures,” and “the KBIC cannot be forced by the state of Michigan to enter into a tax agreement that would subject KBIC to a one-sided, burdensome state process.”

State Police Public Affairs Officer Tiffany Brown confirmed the seizures. In a statement, she said the seizures were carried out by the MSP Eighth District Tobacco Enforcement Team and by MSP Troopers from the Iron Mountain Post. One took place in Iron County, the other in Marquette County. Both resulted from traffic stops.

“The cigarettes were determined to be untaxed; therefore, illegal for possession in Michigan,” Brown wrote.

No arrests have been made, but the investigation remains open, she stated.

Brown said she couldn’t comment further on the investigation. WLUC TV 6 reported Tuesday that MSP said the seizures were part of an ongoing Michigan Attorney General’s Office investigation that began in 2014.

Department of the Attorney General Press Secretary Andrea Bitely refused to comment.

According to a post on the Michigan Department of Treasury website, cigarettes sold on reservations by Indian retailers are required to have a State Tribal Stamp, indicating taxes have been paid. Retailers at tribes that do not have tax agreements with the state are not exempt but can apply for tax refunds on cigarettes sold to tribal members.

Most of the cigarettes sold at the Pines Convenience Center in Baraga are Senecas, produced and sold by the Six Nations of the Grand River tribe in Ontario, Canada. The cigarettes are normally significantly cheaper than domestically-produced, stamped cigarettes, and non-tribal members sometimes travel to the KBIC reservation to buy them.

The KBIC’s release said the cigarettes seized were “manufactured in Indian County and intended to be sold in Indian Country,” and in their view are not subject to taxation.