New York police harass cigarette vendors instead of fighting crime

A recent articles in The New York Times profiles “Lonnie Loosie,” given name Lonnie Warner, one of numerous NYC residents who makes his living on the black market by selling cigarettes to pedestrians. Warner sells both packs and loosies (single cigarettes) which is where he got his nickname.

According to the Times, Warner’s way of making money has earned him the attention of the NYPD. He has been arrested numerous times and charged with selling untaxed cigarettes.

Lonnie Loosie selling a cigarette (Source: New York Times)

Mr. Warner said he and each of his two partners took home $120 to $150 a day, profit made from selling about 2,000 cigarettes, mostly two at a time. Each transaction is a misdemeanor offense.

Among all of Midtown’s cigarette vendors, Mr. Warner stands out, partly because he seems to get arrested more frequently than others. That may be because his style of salesmanship is hardly furtive.

“The cops call me a fish — that’s my nickname, cause I’m easy to catch,” Mr. Warner said during a series of recent interviews. “When they need a body to arrest, they come pick me up.”

In the four years since he began selling cigarettes, Mr. Warner recalls being arrested 15 times, generally on the charge of selling untaxed tobacco. He has been arrested so often that he can recognize 10 different plainclothes police officers, he claims. The ever-present risk of arrest makes working with partners valuable — “we have six eyes on this block,” he explained.

Mr. Warner grew up in Jersey City and spent about two decades in New Jersey prisons for a series of armed robberies. Those crimes date from a time when he says he was addicted to crack cocaine.

After his release from a 13-year sentence in 2006, Mr. Warner tried to find steady work in New York, but was invariably rebuffed — because of his felony status, he suspects. When he considers his options for making a living, he sees few besides selling loosies.

“I’m sorry that it’s come to this, but this is what it’s come to,” he said.

He said he would like to work someday as a barker for tour buses, selling Manhattan’s attractions to wandering tourists.

“I love the streets,” he said. “I love the people in the streets.”

— Joseph Goldstein, “On Manhattan Streets, Loosie Men Sell Illegal Smokes” (Apr. 4th, 2011), The New York Times

Warner and the other cigarette vendors of NYC aren’t alone. It’s very common for police (especially those in cities) to harass people for for running unlicensed vending businesses. When Ademo and Pete were in Las Vegas working on Liberty on Tour, they met several water vendors who said they had been harassed before.

And while police are busy harassing people for simply trying to make a living, millions of violent crimes and property crimes go unsolved every year. It really shows where their priorities are.

  • Wolf

    I see every day articles about true abuse by police officers, and this isn’t one of them. This person is making a living trying to live without paying taxes. So long as he continues to break this law, he should continue to be arrested for it. He could purchase taxed items and sell them (perhaps also needing permits), and he would no longer be harrassed.

    It is more shameful that the local businesses and employers decide not to hire him, as a result of his felonious past, although I can understand their reticence.

    “The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People’s Money out of their Pockets, tho’ only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors’ Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell’d to pay by some Law.

    All Property, indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition.

    He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it. Benjamin Franklin”

  • Chris Mallory

    Franklin was wrong, and so are you if you think like that.

  • Rob

    @Wolf, I have to disagree with you about the taxes. If he buys a pack of cigarettes to resell he already paid the tax on them. What is illegal in NY is to open a pack and sell them individually.

    It would be no different than if I went to Best Buy, bought a couple of new I-Phone’s and sold them on E-Bay. The taxes were paid with the initial purchase and to my knowledge do not need to be paid again.

    Unfortunately this article is not clear if he is a tax exempt vendor who not paying taxes on the purchase. I could only assume if that were the case it would be a Federal tax evasion charge.

    In another article I found it says he is buying the cigarettes from Virginia where the taxes are cheaper and reselling them here which is a violation of state law.

    Either way the taxes have been paid.

  • Pete Eyre

    Wolf, you noted “So long as he continues to break this law, he should continue to be arrested for it.” What if the tax were 100% more or 1000% more? Or what if permits were $100,000/yr?

    Why does a group of people have the right to take money when two individuals engage in a consensual interaction? Should presents given to your family members be taxed? Where do you draw the line?

    What if I wrote on a piece of paper that you owe me 10% of whatever transaction you engage in – would you fork that over?

  • Vicky

    I don’t want to sound rude but…untaxed tobacco? Leave the guy sell his cigarettes and focus on finding the Craigslist killer instead. Even if some of the best Private investigators New York has to offer have been assigned to this case, that doesn’t mean they should keep their eyes open.

    I totally agree with Pete on this one. Let’s just tax everything and see how the public likes it.

  • Brown

    THe police focus on one small guy not paying taxes?!!! (If you can all it that.) What about tax dodging billionairs one wall street?

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  • eality

    Selling loose cigarettes is the equivalent of a violent crime. The sell is unregulated, untaxed, and a health hazard. The sale of loose cigarettes should be a Class A Felony. This would deter most of the iilegal activity. Those who break the law should recieve long (10 to 20 years) prison terms.

  • Ted Martin

    Mitt Romney with all his money stashed overseas too.