By Donald Turvill, Local Democracy Reporter
An Edinburgh newsagents accused of selling booze to 13 year-olds has been let off with a warning and allowed to keep its liquor licence, after its owners claimed the drink had been shoplifted.
Police said two young girls were able to buy Dragon Soop and Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks from Links Express, which resulted in one being taken to hospital.
However during a premises licence review held this week, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Lochend Road store said there was “absolutely no evidence” to support the allegations and shopkeeper siblings Sangeeta and Shivraj Singh, had “no case to answer”.
Alistair MacDonald said it had been an issue over recent months and there was a “possibility” the booze had been stolen and the kids had “come up with a story” to avoid getting in trouble for theft.
Councillors on the Licensing Board agreed there was a lack of evidence to justify ordering the shop to stop selling alcohol – instead calling for a better CCTV system to be installed and for owners to ensure individual bottles and cans could not be easily lifted.
Sergeant Barry mercer told the Board that police believed there was “sufficient information to substantiate” that the children “did indeed purchase alcohol from the premises”.
Recalling the alleged incident on June 3 this year, Sgt Mercer said two girls and one boy, all aged 13, had “heard through the grapevine from friends that they could purchase alcohol in Links Express by Leith Academy”.
He said: “They arrived at the shop around 2pm, the girls went in separately one at a time. The boy did not go in because he believed he would not be sold alcohol as it was girls that would get sold without question or identification.
“The first bought two cans of Dragon Soop, two cans of Four Loko. These are alcoholic energy drinks that are nine per cent and have very high levels of caffeine. That female left, the second girl entered, she bought two cans of Four Loko. She stated to police ‘there were no customers in the shop at the time, I got the drinks, went to the counter, I was served by a woman, I didn’t get ID’d and they didn’t ask my age’. She left with the alcohol, she paid cash.”
He said the trio, who attend Portobello High School, then went to Portobello Beach where two of the three consumed the alcohol.
He added: “As a result of consuming the alcohol the public had to get involved to support the young boy. He was seen being sick and had to be assisted by a member of the public, so his mother was telephoned to come and collect him.
“The female who consumed the alcohol was very intoxicated, when her mother came to collect her she was so concerned that she immediately took her to the Sick Kids for assessment.”
Sgt Mercer said it wasn’t until several weeks later that the underage sale was raised with the police through a community officer at the school and CCTV from inside the store was not available as it is erased after seven days.
“Given the age of the people involved and the delay reporting to police we were not able to identify the member of staff who sold the alcohol to the two 13 year-old girls,” he added. “However, given the statements we’ve noted, the incidents after the consuming of the alcohol I believe that the licensing objective has not been upheld, there’s clear evidence that the children purchased these items from Links Express Lochend Road.”
But solicitor Mr MacDonald dismissed the case put forward as purely “speculative” as it primarily relied statements given by the teenagers, arguing there was “absolutely no evidence”.
He told councillors: “It just does not make sense. There’s been no attempt to give any substance to this whatsoever. Instead the vaguest of vague allegations has been put in front of you and you’re being asked to take a serious decision against this shop. There’s absolutely no legal evidence.”
Mr MacDonald said Links Express and similar small local shops have experienced a surge in theft recently, suggesting this is how the kids obtained the drink. “It’s either people coming in on a one-off or groups of them running in, stealing stuff and running back out again,” he said.
He said the “general consensus among small operators” was that there is “no point in telling the police”.
He added: “I have no proof these people stole the alcohol, I’m just putting it forward as a possibility. But if he had phoned that day and said there had been a theft that would have cast some doubt on this – cast more doubt on this.”
“If you were a kid and you were called by the community police officers to tell them about an alleged event, would you put your hands up and say ‘I stole it’? Of course not. Would you say ‘I used a false ID and I bought it’? Of course you wouldn’t; so you would say ‘I was served’.”
Mr Singh, who appeared alongside Mr MacDonald at the hearing on Monday (October 30), said: “I’m only 25 but I still know what’s right and what’s wrong. My small business is my livelihood – my bread and butter. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise that.”
Board convener Councillor Louise Young said revoking the newsagents licence would have a “big impact, basically on the word of children who were found to have been drunk,” whilst Cllr Chas Booth said he was struggling to see the evidence and such a decision would “devastate his livelihood”.
The warning issued on the licence came with a request to increase the premises CCTV storage to “as close as possible to a month” and move alcoholic beverages which are the “target of youngsters” to behind the counter.