A former Carberry lounge owner — once known for his fight against the provincial smoking ban — has found himself in legal trouble again over smoking.
More than nine years after it was brought into force, Jamie Betle says he remains “bitter” over the smoking ban legislation, which he blames for putting him out of business.
Struggling financially, he got caught smuggling cigarettes across the border in an attempt to support his own habit.
“I’m a smoker … I made the desperate attempt to find a cheaper source of cigarettes,” Betle told Brandon provincial court on Thursday.
Betle, 50, pleaded guilty to smuggling tobacco and alcohol under the Customs Act and to unlawfully possessing tobacco under the Excise Act. Both charges date from June 2008.
He also pleaded guilty to failing to attend court on Oct. 14, 2010.
That failure to appear in court is the reason why the charges took so long to resolve.
An arrest warrant was issued and Betle, who now lives in Regina, was arrested in Manitoba in October during a Thanksgiving visit to family. He spent a night in jail before he was released on bail.
Finally dealing with his charges on Thursday, he said he wasn’t aware of his court date but acknowledged he should have been. He said he was surprised to learn of the warrant during his arrest.
During sentencing, Crown attorney Jason Clouston said that Betle drove a van up to the Canada Border Services crossing at Cartwright on June 3, 2008.
Betle told a border officer that he’d travelled to North Dakota for a poker tournament and had stayed overnight.
When the border officer asked Betle if he’d bought any goods while in the U.S., he said no and that he didn’t have any alcohol or tobacco in the vehicle.
However, the officer pulled over the van and found three cartons of American cigarettes under the driver’s seat. When confronted, Betle told officers that there were more cigarettes in the back of the van.
In total, officers found eight cartons (which contained a total of 220 packs of cigarettes) and three bottles of whisky. All the items were seized.
The amount of duties and taxes that Betle stood to save by not declaring the cigarettes was $1,480.98.
Betle had to pay a $1,002 “civil conveyance penalty” on his van.
In court, Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta also fined Betle a total of $1,542 on his charges. He received time served of one day for failing to attend court.
Betle and his legal troubles over smoking stretch back nearly nine years.
In June 2008, he was fined a total of $1,500 for three counts of violating the Non-Smokers Health Protection Act for letting people smoke in his establishment.
The province’s smoking ban came into force in October 2004, and Betle was owner of Sprucewoods Pizza and Slider’s Lounge in Carberry at the time of the offences in February 2005.
Betle had been vocal in his opposition to the legislation, which banned smoking in almost all enclosed public places, including bars and restaurants.
Shortly after it came into effect, Betle dumped dozens of ashtrays on the steps of the legislature in protest.
He blamed the ban for driving away customers who would chose to drink at home where they could also smoke.
In June 2005, he estimated that he’d lost $150,000 dollars in business.
Struggling financially, by the time he was fined in June 2008, Betle had lost the lounge and restaurant he’d run for more than 20 years and had moved to Regina.
Betle told court that he’s struggled to make ends meet ever since.
He said the smoking law slowly killed his restaurant and pizzeria and he declared bankruptcy in 2007.
He lost the business, rental houses and his home, which he’d borrowed against in a failed effort to keep his business running.
Due to his bankruptcy, he said, he could only make so much per month before his wage was garnished. In 2007, his income was a little more than $2,400.
That left little to meet child support obligations and, now in Regina where he works for a construction company, he still struggles to support himself and a daughter.
“I have nothing left,” Betle, said, noting he still has to pay one of his daughters back for the money he borrowed to make bail.
He said he was trying to find a cheap source of smokes when he got caught trying to smuggle the cigarettes over the border.
Cartons of cigarettes cost $12 in the U.S, Betle said, which is the price of a single pack in Canada. He bought them legally in the U.S., he said, but failed to declare them at the border.
Following court, Betle acknowledged he remains “bitter” about the smoking law.
He left Manitoba to try to make a living, and now feels isolated from some of his children who still live here.
However, during sentencing, Hewitt-Michta said it wasn’t like Betle was trying to smuggle food when he got caught.
“Cigarettes and liquor are luxury items,” Hewitt-Michta said. “If you couldn’t afford them, and you couldn’t afford to get them in a lawful manner, then you shouldn’t have beengetting them at all.”
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 13, 2013