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Servo smokes sting

Wednesday, 14th September, 2011

An attempt by the NSW Department of Health to have a fill-in shop assistant punished for selling cigarettes to a minor failed in the Local Court yesterday.

The shop assistant was actually an apprentice mechanic who had been sent into the BP South Service Station’s shop to work while the regular assistant was off sick for the day on September 29 last year.

A 15-year-old girl “volunteer” employed in the Health Department’s “tobacco compliance program” in Dubbo went into the shop about 2pm and bought cigarettes from the 21-year-old apprentice, Isaac Peter Ruhs.

Mr Ruhs pleaded guilty to the charge but said he had no way of knowing the girl was under 18 years old.

“There was nothing about her appearance that alerted me that she was under age,” he said in an affidavit.

He also said that he was distracted by a man who came into the shop behind the girl and who was behaving suspiciously.

The man was in fact an Environmental Health Officer dispatched from the Public Health Unit in Dubbo to execute the sting on the servo and other local shops.

Mr Ruhs said that the man, on entering, immediately went into the other part of the shop that contained a drinks fridge, lollies, chips and motor parts.

This was separated from the counter where Mr Ruhs stood and located behind two partition walls which made it hard to see what anyone in there was doing, he said.

This part of the shop had been popular with shoplifters, Mr Ruhs said, so he called out the man to ask him what he wanted. “He did not answer,” he said.

This “distracted” him from paying much attention to the girl but as soon as he sold the smokes to her, the suspected shoplifter emerged from behind the wall, revealed his true identity and informed Mr Ruhs that he had “broken the law”, Mr Ruhs said. 

According to Mr Ruhs’ lawyer, Tom Hynes, the behaviour of the health unit’s man and his location in the shop had “exacerbated” the situation.

Mr Ruhs was an apprentice mechanic, not an experienced shop assistant, and he also had no reason to suspect that the girl was a minor, Mr Hynes wrote in his submission. 

Magistrate Geoff Dunlevy accepted this explanation and ruled that no conviction be recorded and no penalty applied.

Mr Ruhs was, however, ordered to pay $81 in court costs.

The maximum fine for selling tobacco to minors is $11,000.

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