A shop owner is waiting to hear whether he will lose his drinks licence after 90 bottles of fake prosecco were seized from his business.
Awarah Shikha, 28, who runs Sabina Mini Market, said sorry for his “mistake” at a hearing to decide whether his licence should be revoked yesterday (Monday 9 November).
The hearing was told that trading standards officers found the counterfeit Verbano and Mirella fizz on sale at the shop, also known as Tivoli Food and Wine.
They also found a fake bottle of Blossom Hill white zinfandel wine on the shelves at the shop, in Tivoli Crescent, Brighton, in March.
Mr Shikha said that he had bought the stock from a “white van man”.
But dozens of neighbours wrote to Brighton and Hove City Council before the “virtual” licensing panel hearing – to speak up for Mr Shikha.
The panel said that the “letters of support” were more akin to character references than evidence about whether licensing laws were being broken.
Mr Shikha told the panel that he had been honest with trading standards officers when they found the illicit alcohol and apologised for this and for breaching other licence conditions.
The panel was told that the breaches included the store having no “designated premises supervisor” (DPS), no record of staff training and a sub-standard security camera system.
Trading standards officer Catriona Macbeth told the five-hour panel hearing that the business had been caught selling illicit alcoholic drinks in the past.
She said that an inspection in 2017 found whisky with a false duty stamp as well as “suspect wine and beers” which could have been bought by the shop’s previous owner.
Ms Macbeth said that the purchase and display of counterfeit alcohol removed from the business on Tuesday 3 March happened before the covid-19 restrictions.
She said that there was a legal requirement for businesses to keep receipts so that all food and drink, including alcohol, could be traced.
Ms Macbeth said: “While the premises licence holder has detailed the steps and controls he has put in place, this is only as a result of this application seeking a review of the premises licence.
“If not for the discovery of illicit alcohol on the premises in March 2020, trading standards have no confidence that this behaviour would not have continued.”
Mr Shikha, an Iraqi, told the panel that he came to Britain to improve his life and was working hard.
He said that, while his spoken English was good, his understanding of written legal and technical terms meant that he made mistakes.
He added: “I co-operated with Catriona very well by removing illegal alcohol from my premises.
“I showed her downstairs and showed her what was illegal. I’ve not been hiding at all.”
Licensing consultant Graham Hopkins said that the 24 letters of support from customers were not just character references but showed that the shop did not attract crowds of teenagers trying to buy cigarettes.
He said: “We have a man who is trying his best to be a responsible operator but one who has admitted he has made mistakes.
“The views of the residents is that the shop is an asset as there is not much around there during the ongoing pandemic. Mr Shikha and his staff go out of their way to help customers positively.”
Mr Hopkins said that without the alcohol licence the shop would not be viable. He said that Mr Shikha bought the illicit wine from a cold caller who had promised to return with a receipt but was never seen again.
And he said that he would work with Mr Shikha and provide training and support good practice.
Former Green councillor Christina Summers spoke on behalf of neighbours who said that Mr Shikha had transformed the shop since taking over in 2016.
He had not tried to hide any of the mistakes that he had made, she said, adding: “If we were to penalise him and solely go by the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, I think the impact on him would be tremendous.
“If he loses his licence, his business is going to fold because there is no way he, his wife, a baby and little girl will be able to maintain that business and it will impact on the community.”
Labour councillor Jackie O’Quinn, who chaired the panel, said: “A lot of the residents were not aware of the terms of the review. Some are under the misapprehension that there was public disorder around the shop. Obviously, there has been nothing of that nature stated.
“It has been more about the illicit alcohol being found and the fact that the terms of the licence have not been understood.”
Councillor O’Quinn said that anyone running licensed premises should know about the law and policies governing the sale of alcohol.
Another member of the panel, Conservative councillor Dee Simson, said: “Do you believe we should brush aside and overlook the illegal practice of selling smuggled alcohol which is a criminal offence?
“And what message would you think this would send to other premises in the city.”
Ms Summers said that it was not just wrong but illegal – but she said that Mr Shikha realised the gravity of the situation.
Sussex Police licensing officer Mark Thorogood said that the force carried out its inspection in August – after a trading standards officer found counterfeit and smuggled alcohol on the premises.
Inspector Rob Lovell found that the security cameras did not cover the whole shop and had the wrong time stamp.
The licence was not correctly displayed. there were no staff training records and the designated premises supervisor (DPS) left the business in 2016.
Council licensing officer Donna Lynsdale ordered the shop to selling alcohol in September after learning that the DPS was no longer working there.
She said: “It seems that Mr Shikha has no understanding of the responsibilities of holding a premises licence.
“During a telephone conversation, he confirmed he had never read the premises licence or conditions.
“I have little confidence that this situation will change and the premises licence conditions will be adhered to.”
The panel of three councillors retired to make a decision which will be made public within five working days.
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