Administrative Court rules that Customs Board can levy duty on large consignments of imported alcohol
Individuals appealing against tax decision had brought in hundreds of litres of spirits
In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, the Helsinki Administrative Court found that four extremely large consignments of alcohol brought into the country in January and intercepted by the Customs were intended primarily for resale in Finland.
The Court was deliberating on four appeals made against a decision by the Board of Customs to tax the imports. Each of the four cases concerned loads imported from Germany in early January, shortly after personal import restrictions were lifted on alcoholic beverages from other EU countries.
None of the appellants escaped completely from the taxes demanded by the Customs. In two cases, however, the sum levied was reduced and a part of the consignment of alcohol was ruled to have been imported for personal consumption, even though the Customs had charged that they were brought in purely for subsequent sale.
It is possible to seek to overturn or amend the Administrative Court ruling by appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court, if this court grants leave of appeal in the case. The dispute is likely to continue, as at least two of the individuals involved expressed their dissatisfaction with the verdict. The lawyer representing the two men, who are from Vaasa on the west coast, said there was no doubt that they would appeal to the higher court.
The decisions handed down on Wednesday did nothing to clarify or quantify what precisely constitutes the upper limit of alcohol that can be imported before the Customs Board officials intervene. Each case is to be handled on its merits.
"These are individual cases, from which it is not possible to draw up any binding limits on quantity", concurred Senior Customs Inspector Markus Teräväinen from the National Board of Customs.
Already in the spring there was some verbal sparring over where the burden of proof lay in determining whether or not large consignments of imported liquor were for resale. The appellants feel the onus is on the customs to provide satisfactory evidence that the goods are not for personal consumption.
The Administrative Court was not unanimous in its decision. In three of the cases, one of the panel of judges took a different view from the others. This judge felt that it would be easier to determine that the goods were meant for sale if the party concerned were to bring in another consignment in a short space of time. It was also suggested that the importer’s home could be inspected shortly after the arrival of the goods, in order to determine how much was left.
Huge consignments of wines and spirits have not become a widespread phenomenon in this country, even after Estonia - where alcohol is a good deal cheaper still than in Germany - joined the European Union in May. Apart from the cases resolved on Wednesday, the Helsinki Administrative Court does not have any other outstanding appeals to be heard against Customs tax decisions.
Markus Teräväinen notes that a couple of cases of imported alcohol during the spring have been referred for consideration of possible taxation, and a dozen or so others are stiill being examined. "This is a very small number when one considers the number of travellers", says Teräväinen. "These court decisions do not concern normal travellers. The Customs is not taking action against the run-of-the-mill imports of normal travellers arriving from abroad."
In the view of the lawyer representing the two men from Vaasa, the action of stopping the consignments in January was intended to frighten off Finns from bringing in large loads of alcohol after deregulation. Teräväinen rejects the claim.
More on this subject:
BACKGROUND: Nearly 700 litres of spirits for personal consumption
Previously in HS International Edition:
Record liquor sales in Tallinn stores over weekend as Finns hoard cheap alcohol (3.5.2004)
Customs have already stopped three huge consignments of alcohol in Hanko (14.1.2004)
Special quotas for alcohol and tobacco imports from other EU countries to be lifted January 1 (22.12.2003)
National Board of Customs