Heelz found not guilty of running an unlicensed sex shop

Posted: January 24, 2013

Stafford Magistrates Court was the scene of a sex establishment licensing row on January 21st and 22nd, when a case brought by East Staffordshire Borough Council against Heelz Adult Store of Burton-Upon-Trent was heard by three magistrates.

Two separate charges relating to visits by council officials to the shop’s industrial estate premises in March and May 2012 were presented and the company’s owner – Michael McGee, who is also a partner in DVM Enterprises, the DVD and toy wholesale firm – gave evidence in his defence. He’d pleaded not guilty to both charges at a hearing in the same courtroom on November 7th. His evidence at the trial was backed up by testimony given by ETO’s Paul Smith, who was called as a witness as he’d also visited the store in May 2012, for a company profile article.

Earlier, the magistrates had heard from East Staffs BC’s chief licensing officer Margaret Woolley who’d visited the shop in the preceding December and January, Brian Davies, an environmental health officer who had no experience of sex establishment licensing, and the two men sent in to make a test purchase. These men, Dwaine Drew and Liam Gratty gave conflicting evidence about the size, nature and product split of the business, and like Woolley and Davies, hadn’t conducted a formal count of products, or taken measurements or photos.

Arguments centred around what constituted a ‘sex article’, with the prosecution pushing for the shop’s footwear, lingerie and clothing lines to be included in a very loose interpretation of products designed to stimulate. A further issue – that the two test shoppers had been shown the warehouse area of the unit by the shop’s manager (not McGee) – also hung heavily over the court, as this stockroom also holds DVM’s R18 DVDs and a much larger selection of sex toys. There was no suggestion that the films had been offered for sale though.

At 3pm on the second day, the one female and two male magistrates retired to consider their verdict. A tense hour for Mr McGee followed, during which he discussed the case with his brother David and council, Mr Grierson of Manchester. He felt he’d been able to neutralise many of the council’s arguments, but was concerned about how the magistrates would react to members of the public being invited into the back area, even though this wasn’t company policy and the manager had been verbally disciplined for doing so.

On being recalled to the courtroom, McGee stood as the magistrates gave their verdict. With a fine of up to £20,000 for the offence of supplying a sex article (a vibrator ‘bought for a stag do’) in the balance he was understandably nervous. A statement was read out, highlighting the various arguments within the case and calling Mrs Woolley’s evidence ‘credible and concise’. However, since her visits took place more than six months before the issuing of the summons, her testimony wasn’t relevant and had to be discounted. Furthermore, the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the shop was selling or displaying significant numbers of sex articles and that items such as clothes, shoes and boots could not reasonably be included in their count – or rather rough impression – of what the shop sold. The magistrates also agreed that the stock area could not be regarded as part of the sales floor and since the council had no clear policy on what percentages and products made the unit ‘trade as an unlicensed sex shop’, it was unreasonable to expect Mr McGee to comply with invisible guidelines. He was found not guilty on both counts, which elicited a gleeful “Yes!” from Michael’s brother, watching from the public seats. He got a stern look and a shush from the usher.

An application for costs was made against East Staffordshire Borough Council and they have 21 days to appeal, but this can only be done on points of law, which seems unlikely. Afterwards, Heelz’ very effective council, John Grierson, advised McGee to request official, written guidance on the shop’s product mix, to avoid a repeated prosecution.

An expanded version of this summery, and an examination of the issues surrounding such cases, will appear in the March issue of ETO.