After a years-long dispute with the state of New York over allegedly untaxed cigarette sales, one member of the Seneca Nation of Indians may be taking his beef with the state one step further with what some drivers and at least one local news outlet say appears to be the construction of an unapproved off-ramp from the New York State Thruway just south of Buffalo.
After a curious truck driver who on a “daily basis” travels a stretch of the Thruway that runs through the Seneca nation territory alerted Buffalo’s WGRZ-TV to construction crews building “a new exit ramp to the Cattaraugus Reservation,” the station sent a reporter to get a closer look.
“Sure enough, it appears that something that looks like it could eventually be an off ramp is being built, and appears to be coming ever closer to the Thruway,” WGRZ reports. “It leads to the Big Indian Smoke Shop, owned by Eric White, a Seneca with several different businesses.”
The news station says it has tried to speak with White, but he has not responded to their requests for comment. The station reports “a surrogate” did phone later to say that White “hasn’t decided” if he will reveal what he’s building there on the side of the highway.
Off ramp or no, the station reports that the construction is likely “part of a personal protest” following White’s lost legal battle with the state. Here’s the short of it as reported by WGRZ:
On March 15 an administrative law judge issued a ruling that upheld fines totaling $2.4 million against White and one of his enterprises for allegedly selling unstamped — and therefore untaxed — cigarettes in 2012.
White had claimed that the sale and transportation of the cigarettes was legal, despite their not having a tax stamp, because they were native brands being shipped from one reservation to another in the state. He also claimed State Police illegally searched the truck.
White also argued that the fines levied were three and a half times what the cigarettes were worth, a total so grossly disproportionate to their value, that it would be considered excessive under the Eighth Amendment.
The administrative law judge rejected each argument in upholding the state’s claim in a 50-page decision.
White plans to appeal that decision and is also “challenging the state’s right to impose taxes of any sort on native territories,” the station reports. Of the construction going on near the Thruway, White’s lawyer, Paul Cambria, told the station, “Mr. White believes there is no valid easement that the Thruway has over sovereign territory.”
Meanwhile, the Seneca Nation, which recently filed a lawsuit of its own against the state over the toll-funded Thruway, has said it “has no role whatsoever in what is taking place” along the roadway. The Thruway Authority has said it is looking into the matter, and aFederal Highway Administration spokesman has told the station that while new off ramps do need to be approved, he remained “unsure how that policy applied on tribal land.”
So, who knows how this will end up? As of right now, state and federal officials seem to be equally confused.