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Channel shoppers win judgement against UK Customs

A group of Channel shoppers has won a landmark victory in the High Court over the right to bring alcohol and tobacco into the UK.

Cross-Channel ferry operator Hoverspeed and a group of holidaymakers brought the action against UK Customs and Excise after they had their goods and vehicle seized following a random stop by customs officers.

The High Court ruled that Customs’ methods of operating were ‘incompatible’ with EU law. They said officers had not proved they had reasonable grounds for stopping the car in question, so ‘the goods in it should therefore not have been seized. Nor should the car.’

One of the group of shoppers, George Wilkinson, could not prove his 10,200 cigarettes, eight kilos of tobacco and two bottles of wine were for his own use. All his goods and his car were seized.

The judges ordered that these should be returned within seven days – or compensation paid if they have been destroyed.

There is no limit to the amount one person can bring in to the country, but EU guidelines advise on amounts ‘considered reasonable’. As interpreted by UK Customs this is about as much as will fill a large estate car – 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer, 10 of spirits, 20 of fortified wine, 800 cigarettes and so on.

Officers can stop a car on suspicion of smuggling. The owner then has to prove the goods are not going to be sold.

Customs and Excise law enforcement spokesman Robert Buxton told decanter.com the ruling was not a smuggler’s charter.

‘Some newspapers have given the impression we can no longer stop anyone who is smuggling. That is not the case. Our policy of stopping people on suspicion will continue. We’re not packing up and going home.’

Treasury economic secretary John Healy said, ‘The court has backed the fundamentals of the UK’s approach to tackling excise smuggling.

‘This is a complex and technically detailed judgement. Although we welcome many aspects of it, the Court has found against Customs on a number of technical points. These are now being carefully considered and some aspects may be appealed.’

Written by Adam Lechmere1 August 2002

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