In a rare enforcement action, the state of Texas last week had the co-owner of a popular Galveston bar arrested and booked into the county on charges of violating tobacco tax laws.
Galveston County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Justin Strait, 31, of Galveston, May 8 on charges related to violating laws regulating the sale of cigars and other tobacco products, according to police records.
Strait was charged with two misdemeanor counts of selling tobacco products without a permit or failure to pay taxes, according to Galveston County court records.
Strait, a co-owner of Brews Brothers, a craft beer bar on The Strand in Galveston, said Thursday the arrest resulted from miscommunication between him and his staff.
The Texas Comptroller’s Office filed the complaints against Strait, according to police records. The agency regulates the sale of tobacco in Texas.
A comptroller’s office inspector visited the bar in February and issued a citation for selling cigars with an expired permit, according to a probable cause affidavit obtained by The Daily News.
On that day, the inspector demanded tax records going back four years from a bartender, according to the affidavit. He didn’t receive the records at that time, or after repeated requests made in March and April, according to the affidavit.
Strait said the employee never informed him about the inspection or about the request for records the inspector left at the bar.
“I never saw that paper,” Strait said. “I was never apprised of it.”
The Texas Tax Code requires tobacco sellers to keep records about shipments of tobacco, where the products came from and how much they cost.
Strait said he was not aware of the warrant until he was arrested and booked last week. He believed he had satisfied the inspector’s original complaint by stopping the sale of cigars at the bar until he received a new permit, he said.
Strait’s bond was set at $3,000 and he was released on the day he was arrested, he said.
“All of this was from a piece of paper I didn’t see,” he said.
Strait said he was the only person related to the business to be arrested, even though he shares ownership with other people and was not the only person whose name is on the bar’s tobacco sales permit.
The affidavit calls Strait the “primary party responsible” on the business’ tobacco permit.
The bar is still open, Strait said.
The comptroller’s office is in charge of investigating violations of the state’s tobacco laws, including claims of selling tobacco to minors.
The Class A misdemeanor charges against Strait are violations of the Texas Tax Code punishable by up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
Charges like those filed against Strait and arrests in connection with those charges are rare in Texas.
Over the past five years, the comptroller’s office has conducted about 18,000 tobacco-related inspections, agency spokesman Kevin Lyons said.
In that same time period, the agency has issued 880 citations for all types of violations, including sale of tobacco to a minor, failure to post signage and failure to pay taxes, Lyons said.