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Fate of cigarette seller up to court

Undated photo of Rodney Morrison.

Undated photo of Rodney Morrison. Credit: Handout

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A federal prosecutor and a defense attorney argued Wednesday before a federal appeals court about whether a man who had been accused of monopolizing a massive cigarette bootlegging trade on the Poospatuck Indian Reservation in Mastic should get up to 20 more years in prison or be released.

Rodney Morrison was convicted by a jury in Central Islip in 2008 of running his cigarette business as a racketeering enterprise, as well as being a felon illegally in possession of a gun.

Despite government claims that Morrison operated "through a reign of terror," the jury acquitted him of murder, arson, assault and robbery charges.

Then in a complex series of decisions after the verdict, U.S. District Court Denis Hurley threw out the racketeering conviction on the grounds that Morrison did not have adequate notice that selling bootleg cigarettes was illegal. The racketeering charge could have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison

Still, Hurley sentenced Morrison to 10 years in prison on the weapons charge, saying that despite the acquittals, he believed Morrison was involved in the murder and other crimes and was taking his character into account in deciding on the maximum sentence.

Federal prosecutor James Miskiewicz told a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit that it should reinstate a racketeering charge against Morrison, who has been in prison since his arrest in 2004, because it was obvious that his actions in concealing his sale of large quantities of cigarettes showed he knew it was illegal.

But Morrison's attorney, Richard Levitt of Manhattan, argued that the sale of untaxed cigarettes on Indian reservations had not been enforced by the state and so Hurley's decision to toss the charge was correct.

In court papers, Levitt also argued that the gun charge was incorrectly decided and the sentence was excessive.

The appeals court, which usually meets in Manhattan, hears cases occasionally in New Haven, because Connecticut is part of the circuit.

The three-judge panel did not immediately rule on the case.

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