Cigarette ‘courier’ gets suspended sentence

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A Co Antrim woman who acted as a “courier’’ for a criminal gang has received a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence after she was caught with over 130,000 cigarettes and nearly 50kgs of handrolling tobacco.

Donna Clarke, 54, of Antrim Road, Newtownabbey, had pleaded guilty at Belfast Crown Court to fraudulent evasion of duty totalling almost £60,000 on the tobacco products.

Prosecution barrister Natalie Pinkerton told the court that in September 2012, police searched her Antrim Road home and a car in her driveway and recovered cigarettes totalling 80,020 and 49.45kgs of handrolling tobacco.

“Paperwork was also recovered from the property which included details of tobacco sales and customers,’’ said Ms Pinkerton.

When questioned by police under caution, Clarke replied that “the cigarettes have nothing to do with me’’ and said the car did not belong to her.

Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland was told that in July 2013 police stopped Clarke behind the wheel of a silver Range Rover on the A1 carriageway outside Newry.

Officers searched the rear of the 4 X 4 vehicle and found boxes concealed under a rubber mat. Inside the boxes, police recovered 50,000 duty free Regal King Size cigarettes.

Under caution, the mother-of-two replied: “I just picked them up. I went to the Carrickdale Hotel to a meet a friend who didn’t turn up.’’

The court heard she was “frightened to say anything else’’ as she was in fear of a “criminal gang’’ who owned by the tobacco goods.

The prosecutor added: “It is accepted by the prosecution that there were other parties involved who had a more significant role. Her role was that of a courier.’’

The court was told that Clarke had two previous similar convictions dating back to 1995 and 1999 when she was caught at Belfast International Airport bringing in cigarettes from the Canary Islands in excess of her personal allowance.

Defence barrister Des Fahy said Clarke was treating the offences “with the upmost seriousness’’, adding: “She has a significant degree of trepidation in the plight she finds herself in.’’

Asked by the judge if it was a criminal gang or a paramilitary gang involved in the tobacco crimes, Mr Fahy replied: “These are criminal elements. These are persons she got involved in through friendship and that friendship was abused by other individuals.

“But she accepts, by her guilty plea, her responsibility for her actions. She did not personally receive benefits from the sale of the cigarettes.’’

Urging the judge not to jail her, Mr Fahy said Clarke had “significant responsibilities’’ in her life and looked after her mother, who was in her 80s, on a daily basis.

Judge David McFarland said the amount of tobacco products seized was “substantial’’ and said the duty that could have been lost was between £55,000 and £60,000.

“The aggravating factor in this case is that following your arrest in September 2012, you were released on bail and you returned to your criminal activities in July 2013 which was in breach of your bail conditions.

“Your previous record is also a significant and aggravating factor. It is a case where the custody threshold has been passed given the amount of revenue that could have been lost.’’

However, the Belfast Recorder said that given her guilty pleas and her personal circumstances, he would impose a two-and-a-half year sentence suspended for three years.

The judge also made Clarke the subject of a Serious Crime Prevention Order for the next five years. Under the Order, she must inform HM Revenue and Customs of any vehicles she owns and also divulge any travel plans.