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Cigarette kingpin's conviction reinstated

Undated photo of Rodney Morrison.

Undated photo of Rodney Morrison. Credit: Handout

A federal appeals court on Monday reinstated a racketeering conviction of one-time Poospatuck reservation cigarette kingpin Rodney Morrison, exposing him to up to 20 more years in prison for running a $138 million contraband operation from 1999 to 2004.

Morrison, 45, was convicted in 2008 of racketeering conspiracy and gun charges. U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley sentenced him to 10 years on the gun charge, but he threw out the racketeering conviction as unconstitutionally vague because of confusion about the taxability in New York of tribal cigarette sales.

In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that despite disagreements among New York courts and problems of enforcement amid tribal claims of sovereignty, the "plain language" of New York tax law prohibited untaxed sales to nontribal members.

Morrison, who in his heyday operated through the Peace Pipe Smoke Shop on the Poospatuck reservation in Mastic, is currently imprisoned at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex near Ocala, Fla. Because of time spent in prison before his sentencing, his scheduled release date on the gun charge is August 2013.

His attorney, Richard Levitt, said a request for rehearing was under consideration.

In its ruling, the appeals court said it was also taking into account the massive scope of Morrison's operation -- which advertised the availability of untaxed cigarettes throughout the New York City metro area and sold high volumes to middlemen that he knew planned to resell them in the city.

"Morrison's actions," the court said, "went far beyond the sort of conduct that might be in any area of ambiguity."

At his 2008 trial, prosecutors had accused Morrison of controlling his cigarette empire through a "reign of terror." But jurors acquitted him on separate charges of murdering one competitor, and intimidating others through assault and arson.

Hurley, who will now sentence Morrison on the racketeering conspiracy, said when he imposed the maximum on the gun charge that he believed the murder charge was true despite the jury's finding. He also cited Morrison's prior record, which included convictions for armed robbery and criminally negligent homicide.

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