Northern Ireland news

Man (31) jailed for contraband cigarette operation

Cash seized as part of a police probe into south Belfast man Stephen Baxter. Picture from Pacemaker

A 31-YEAR-OLD man has been jailed for a year after he admitted to selling contraband cigarettes.

Stephen Baxter (31), of Blythe Street in south Belfast, pleaded guilty to the fraudulent evasion of duty on the cigarettes over a four year period.

He also pleaded guilty to possessing more than £65,000 in criminal property, a sum of Euros and transferring criminal property.

Belfast Crown Court heard how police and Revenue and Customs officials raided Baxter's home in July 2017.

The prosecution said police found £64,349 in cash along with €515 and a large amount of contraband cigarettes.

The unpaid duty on the cigarettes amounted to £188.

Baxter was not at home during the search. When he was later stopped on Linfield Road in south Belfast, police found more than £1,100 in cash in his wallet.

Around 1,000 text messages and Facebook messenger posts offering cigarettes for sale between 2013 and 2017 were found on his phone.

The court heard that the day after his arrest Baxter transferred £16,837 to three unknown people.

The defence said Baxter's trade was a "small time operation'' and he was not part of any criminal gang.

Judge David McFarland told Baxter: "You were generating the cash. You were not a messenger, you were not a patsy or a courier delivering the cigarettes to others".

"This type and level of criminal conduct merits an immediate custodial sentence," he said.

Handing down a 24 month sentence, Judge McFarland told Baxter he would spend 12 months in prison followed by a year on licence.

Proceedings to confiscate £65,000 in cash, a Range Rover and a Tag Heuer watch have been adjourned.

The judge ordered the destruction of all the seized cigarettes and police will retain Baxter's mobile phone.

The Paramilitary Crime Task Force, made up of the PSNI, National Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs, welcomed Baxter's jail sentence.

Detective Inspector Lynne Knox said the case "should act as a warning to those who engage in this type of activity - not only do you risk receiving a custodial sentence, you could also be significantly hit in the pocket with the seizure of your property".

"Whilst some people may think that there is no harm in buying counterfeit cigarettes at a cheap price, the reality is that profits made from the sale of these type of items are often used to fund other criminality which inflicts misery on local communities," she said.

"There is no such thing as a victimless crime."

Steve Tracey, from Revenue and Customs, said: "Working together in partnership with other enforcement colleagues we can target the criminal gangs who are stealing from the taxpayer, robbing public services and undermining legitimate, honest traders".

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