Belfast Telegraph

Belfast man jailed after Paramilitary Crime Task Force investigation into contraband cigarettes

A search of Mr Baxter’s property and two vehicles in July 2017 found £65,500 of cash and a large volume of counterfeit cigarettes. Credit: PSNI
A search of Mr Baxter’s property and two vehicles in July 2017 found £65,500 of cash and a large volume of counterfeit cigarettes. Credit: PSNI

By John Cassidy

A south Belfast man was 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 over a four year period.

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

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

Prosecution lawyer Robin Steer said during the course of the search, police found £64,349 in cash along with €515 in Euros and a large quantity of contraband cigarettes. The unpaid duty on the cigarettes amounted to £188.

Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland heard that Baxter was not at home during the search was later located driving a Mercedes van along Linfield Road in the city.

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

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The Paramilitary Crime Task Force (PCTF) has welcomed the sentencing of Stephen Baxter (31) at Laganside Crown Court earlier today, Friday 18 January, for offences linked to the sale of contraband cigarettes. Credit: PSNI

His mobile phone was seized and the court was told that 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'', he was the "sole offender'' and the trade in illegal cigarettes had been going on four four years until detected.

Mr Steer said that the prosecution viewed the sentencing range was between 18 months to four years, adding that Baxter should receive a sentence of "no more than the middle'' of the sentencing range.

Defence barrister Andrew Moriarty said Baxter's trade in illegal cigarettes was a "small time operation'', adding that he was not part of any criminal gang and his criminal conduct did not involve drugs or guns.

Urging the judge not to send Baxter into immediate custody, Mr Moriarty said 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.

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Mr Baxter was sentenced to two years, one year in prison and one year on licence, for possessing and transferring criminal property and for fraudulent evasion of customs duty. Credit: PSNI

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.''

Handing down a 24 month sentence, Judge McFarland 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 and Baxter's mobile phone will remain with police for further inquiries.

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 of the PCTF said: “Mr Baxter was brought before the courts and pleaded guilty to selling counterfeit cigarettes.

"Despite initially denying any involvement in this type of activity, a robust police investigation showed that Stephen sold and supplied counterfeit cigarettes over a four year period.

“As well as the sentence that Mr Baxter received today, £65,500, a Range Rover and a TAG Heuer watch, which were purchased as a result of his criminality, have been seized.

"This success is as a result of PSNI and HMRC working together as part of the PCTF and highlights the impact that we can have in tackling organised crime and those who profit from it.

"It 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."

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