A landlord has been left with a criminal record after Trading Standards prosecuted him for allowing tenants to sell contraband tobacco and drink from his retail premises. This is the first prosecution of its kind and it could open the floodgates for similar convictions in the future.
The Illegal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade
The landlord owns a shop unit on Lincoln high street. For several years, the shop has been leased by a succession of tenants, who operate it as an Eastern European grocery store. The illicit trade is part of a wider problem affecting many parts of the UK.
Illegal cigarettes and alcohol products are regularly shipped to the UK from other countries. No VAT has been paid on these shipments, so HMRC is left out of pocket to the tune of £2 billion. Even worse, many illicit tobacco products contain harmful chemicals, such as arsenic. The proceeds of the illegal drink and tobacco trade also fund organised crime across Europe, so the trade is hardly a victimless crime, as some believe.
Trading Standards have been trying to close down the Lincoln shop for many years. Officials raided the shop on numerous occasions and discovered illicit drink and tobacco products, but despite numerous prosecutions, trade continued from the premises.
Eventually, they decided to prosecute the landlord, who they said was wilfully allowing the illicit trade to continue, even though he had been told by officials to evict the tenants and terminate the lease.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
The prosecution against the landlord was successful and he was charged with two offences of allowing his premises to be used for criminal activity. He was given a suspected prison sentence and ordered to repay £60k in rent under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The landlord claims he is a victim in all of this. He says he collected the rent because he had a mortgage and bills to pay. He also claims he tried to evict the tenants but to no avail.
“I have done everything I can to get them out,” he said.
“What can I do? I am not getting help from the authorities.”
Andy Wright from Lincoln Trading Standards tells a different story.
Facilitating Illegal Activity
“I had a meeting with Mr Viscomi over two years ago. At that time, I informed him of the illegal activity taking place at his premises and the potential consequences for him as a landlord in facilitating that illegal activity.
Over the course of the next two and a half years, I personally wrote to Mr Viscomi on numerous occasions telling him of illegal activity at his premises and that he may be seen as facilitating that crime. Unfortunately, Mr Viscomi did nothing, saying what they did was nothing to do with him.”
The judge agreed. In his summing up, he said it was clear the landlord knew what was going on at the shop, yet he did nothing to terminate the lease or take court action to remove the tenants.
In the meantime, the landlord says the whole sorry saga has been disastrous for his health.
Trading Standards don’t have a lot of sympathy for him. They say they tried to help the landlord, but he didn’t take them up on their offer.
“At the time I offered to make Trading Standards’ evidence available if it assists in removing the tenants, I even offered to attend court personally to assist him. I made that offer again in the days following in a telephone conversation with his son,” said Andy Wright.
The case has generated a lot of interest from the police and Trading Standards in other parts of the country, and the message is clear. If landlords turn a blind eye to illegal activities taking place on their premises – and continue to collect rent payments – they could end up with a criminal record too!
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