Woman cleared of selling counterfeit cigarettes after confession ruled inadmissible

The court noted the remaining evidence could still be submitted but without a proven connection between the accused and the cigarettes, there was nothing tying her to the crime

A Pacevill woman was cleared of selling counterfeit cigarettes due to a lack of evidence
A Pacevill woman was cleared of selling counterfeit cigarettes due to a lack of evidence

A woman from Paceville has been cleared of selling counterfeit cigarettes due to lack of evidence after her confession to the police was ruled to have been inadmissible.

Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera heard how, in 2002, prosecuting police inspector Bernard Zarb had started investigating a number of cases where counterfeit Rothmans Blue cigarettes were being sold from vending machines. The cigarettes were in near-identical packaging to the genuine article and easily mistaken for the real thing. 

Zarb had been monitoring a number of supermarket workers at B&F Supermarket in Sliema after receiving information about their possible involvement in the crime and had noted one 21-year-old employee as having disappeared for a time as the policeman was speaking to director Joseph Degabriele.

Degabriele had directed the police towards his suppliers, K&L Attard, in Valletta, saying the supermarket did not have the keys to the vending machines. When these keys were eventually sourced, no counterfeit cigarettes were found in the machines. But as police were leaving, the young employee had returned and when spoken to, told police that his boss had lied about the keys, using them as an excuse to buy time for the youth to take the fake cigarettes to his mother Rita Spiteri's, house in Gzira.

There, police discovered a stash of 262 packets of fake cigarettes. Rita Spiteri, 36, was charged in 2005 with having, in 2002, knowingly placed fake branded cigarettes into circulation, distributing them, as well as falsifying documents relating to their origin and knowingly making use of the false documents.

Spiteri, a factory worker, had cooperated with the police investigation, giving the police details of who had supplied her with them. But the woman said that she hadn't known the cigarettes were fakes, adding that she thought that they “might have been stolen.” She bought them for herself, as she smoked a lot, she had told the court, but had given them to a friend who worked at B&F Supermarket “because he had asked her for them.”

The woman who had sold the cigarettes to Spiteri, a co-worker of hers, had also testified after proceedings against her were concluded. Mariella Sciriha said that Spiteri had bought the cigarettes for Lm7 (€16.30) per stick of cigarette packets.

The case stalled in 2014 and was put off indefinitely after a number of no-shows by the defendant but was revived later that year, after the prosecution declared that the accused was abroad, being investigated for a drug-related offence.

The case continued after Spiteri's return to Malta.

In her final judgment on the matter, Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera observed that the prosecution had not exhibited any evidence proving the cigarettes in Spiteri's possession had been the same ones sold to her by Sciriha. Despite producing her as a witness, the prosecution had not asked her to inspect the cigarettes or confirm whether they were the same ones she had sold to the accused.

Spiteri had confessed to the crime during her interrogation, a fact brought to the court's attention. Noting that the confession had been made without her lawyer being present – not a legal requirement at the time, but a fact which has since been the grounds for a number of successful Human Rights cases against Malta, the court ruled the confession inadmissible.

This did not mean the rest of the evidence was inadmissible, noted the court, but said the fact that the prosecution had not proven a connection between the cigarettes Sciriha had sold to the accused and the cigarettes found in her possession 7 years later, together with the fact that the B&F Supermarket director who had informed the police that Spiteri had sold the cigarettes had not testified, effectively left nothing tying her to the crime. 

The magistrate cleared Spiteri of all charges and ordered the destruction of the fake cigarettes.

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