Skip Navigation

Home » News & Media » Hot! News Articles » Outside groups weigh in on Cayuga tax case

Outside groups weigh in on Cayuga tax case

By Nate Robson / The Citizen

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 11:35 PM EDT
Three independent entities with a vested interest in the outcome of a felony tax evasion case against the Cayuga Indian Nation have submitted briefs with a state appellate court in an attempt to influence a pending appeal.

The state District Attorneys Association and New York City's Corporation Counsel have submitted briefs supporting law enforcement agencies in Cayuga and Seneca counties while the Seneca Indian Nation has thrown its support behind the Cayugas.

The briefs come as both sides wait for a state Appellate Court to decide whether a lower court was right to allow the counties to charge the tribe with tax evasion.

A decision could come as early as Friday.

On Dec. 9, state Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Fisher ruled the counties' Nov. 25 raids of the Cayuga-owned Lake Side Trading stores in Union Springs and Seneca Falls were legal, and the nation could be charged for possessing almost three million untaxed cigarettes.

The Cayugas appealed Fisher's decision the next day, setting off a chain of rulings that have the case now in the hands of the state Appellate Division in Rochester.

In its brief in the case, the Senecas said a ruling against the Cayugas will have a statewide effect on the tribes' federally recognized right to buy and sell untaxed cigarettes.

According to federal laws, tribes are exempt from paying excise taxes on sales made between members of their own nation. Excise tax still has to be collected on sales with non-Indians or members of a different tribe.

“The Seneca Nation (and) its members ... possess the right to purchase tax-exempt cigarettes within territories where cigarette sales support significant regional economic activity and employment,” the tribe said. “This cigarette economy is governed by the Seneca Nation's own comprehensive stamping, regulatory, and law enforcement regime.”

But officials from New York City, who are engaged in similar litigation with neighboring tribes, said the Senecas' enforcement is a sham because a bulk of the their $620 million cigarette industry relies on the sale of untaxed cigarettes to non-tribe members - a violation of state and federal laws.

The city said it's irrelevant that a Western New York appeals court placed an injunction on a state effort to collect taxes until a coupon system exempting American Indians from paying excise taxes is created. That ruling, the city argued, does not affect the law making it illegal to sell untaxed cigarettes.

“The relevant issues is whether, because (the law) imposes a tax, Indian sellers violate the law if they sell untaxed cigarettes,” the city said. “A seller may have no obligation to collect tax, or to apply tax stamps, but still violates the law by selling untaxed cigarettes.”

With the Cayugas' case bogged down in civil litigation, the DAA said it's concerned that keeping the proceeding out of a criminal court will set a dangerous precedent.

Historically, civil courts have refused to get involved in ongoing criminal litigation in fear it could cause rich defendants to use their resources to drown a case in civil litigation before charges are filed.

The nation, which appealed to a civil court the day after its stores were raided, was granted a temporary injunction shortly after sealed felony indictments were filed in mid-December that prevented the counties from advancing their investigation. Subsequent rulings prevented the nation from selling untaxed cigarettes until the appeal was decided.