Saturday, February 18, 2006

Customs Exercise

A while ago HM Customs was merged with the Inland Revenue, partly as a consequence of the bungling of a major investigation by the former that resulted in a large loss to the taxpayer. Before that Customs had a pretty fearsome reputation for not doing things by halves. Governments have traditionally ensured that their revenue collectors are well resourced and have adequate powers.

Way back when I was new to the Bench I sat on a prosecution of a married couple. The husband had a modestly-paid job with an organisation that had depots across London and the Home Counties, and despatched many vehicles from those depots each day. This provided a ready-made network to distribute goods of dubious provenance. One day the husband brought home some cigars in boxes of 25 that he said were available from a man in the depot for £10 per box. The duty-paid price was nearer £45. Everyone in the organisation knew about these cheap cigars that had come from Holland by the back door, and a lot of people were buying them for their own use or to sell on. The wife sold the cigars to friends for £15 per box, and asked her husband to get some more. Finances were tight and the odd tenner here and there helped with the shopping, so she carried on selling a few boxes every now and then.

At this point she made a misjudgement. She placed a small advertisement in the local free newspaper, offering cigars at £15 per box.

Ten days later the couple were awoken at 6 a.m. as their front door was battered in, and they were arrested and handcuffed while their house and car were searched by a posse of twenty Customs officers. About forty boxes of smokes were found in the car, and off they all went to Customs HQ for an interview. In interviews lasting, believe it or not, nine hours, the by now thoroughly frightened couple confessed everything. In court the prosecutor asked us to send the matter to the Crown Court, because six months' prison would be unlikely to be enough, and they gave notice of their intention to seize and forfeit the cigars and the car. The Clerk advised us that case law suggested that we should indeed send the case upstairs, so that is what we did. After that I lost touch with the case.

Now I am no sexist, in fact I am strongly in favour of equal treatment for women, but I think that I could forgive the husband in this case if his dominant thought had been "Silly Cow!"

These days the Sentencing Guidelines Council has set new tariffs for these kind of offences and the couple would probably have faced a community penalty at most, or possibly a fine. Duty evaded will have to be £10,000 or more before custody becomes likely.

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