Northern Ireland

Belfast man jailed over contraband cigarettes

stock image of cigarettes Image copyright Tarzhanova/Getty
Image caption "You were not a patsy or a courier delivering the cigarettes to others," the judge said (Stock image).

A south Belfast man has been jailed for a year after he admitted dealing in contraband cigarettes.

Stephen Baxter, 31, of Blythe Street, pleaded guilty to the fraudulent evasion of duty on the cigarettes.

He further pleaded guilty to possessing criminal property of over £65,000, a quantity of Euros and transferring criminal property.

Belfast Crown Court heard how police and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) raided his home in July 2017.

The prosecution said police found more than £64,000, €515 in Euros and a large quantity of contraband cigarettes.

Baxter was not at home during the search and was later found driving a Mercedes van in the city.

'Sole offender'

When searched he was found to have had £1,108.61 in cash in his wallet, the court heard.

Police found 1,000 text messages and Facebook messenger posts dating between 2013 and 2017 in which Baxter was telling people he had cigarettes for sale.

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

The prosecution lawyer told the court that Baxter's "culpability was high'' and he was the "sole offender''.

'Not a patsy'

His defence barrister said Baxter's trade in illegal cigarettes was a "small time operation'' and said he was not part of any criminal gang and his criminal conduct did not involve drugs or guns.

He added that a report by the Probation Service recommended another course of punishment which would "allow him to put something back into community or leave something hanging over his head'' by way of a suspended sentence.

The Belfast Recorder 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.''

'Range Rover car and a Tag Heuer watch'

The judge handed down a 24-month sentence and told Baxter he would spend 12 months in prison followed by a year on supervised licence.

Confiscation proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act relating to £65,000 in cash, a Range Rover car and a Tag Heuer watch have been adjourned.

The judge ordered the destruction of all the seized cigarettes.

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