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Knock-offs net $7,500 fine

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A Winnipeg entrepreneur snared in an RCMP sting targeting the sale of high-end designer knock-offs at her downtown boutique has pleaded guilty to infringing Canadian copyright laws.

Rosalie Topangu, 49, owner of the now-shuttered Afritoba Boutique on Smith Street, scuttled what was to be the start of her provincial court trial by pleading guilty Friday to charges under the Copyright Act.

Topangu was charged following a Dec. 21, 2010, RCMP raid at her store where a sizable amount of merchandise was seized, boasting the brand names of some of the world's most in-demand luxury items, including Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

The raid was prompted by what an undercover financial integrity unit investigator saw during a visit to the store weeks earlier.

He purchased a Prada-branded handbag for only $95. While such bags have a "vast" range of prices, they routinely sell for $1,000 and up, Judge Lee Ann Martin heard.

"Clearly being sold at a devalued price," said Crown attorney Stephen Christie.

The plainclothes officer went there based on a tip from RCMP colleagues in Vancouver that designer bags and pants were being shipped to the Afritoba Boutique, he said. They were shipped off to the store before police in B.C. could seize them.

In all, 92 copyright-infringing fake luxury items were seized from the store in the December raid, including handbags, watches and jewelry. They were confirmed to be counterfeit after the various companies were consulted, said Christie.

Topangu came on the RCMP's radar in 2005, when she was sent a "cease and desist" letter warning her of the ramifications of selling counterfeit goods.

Border services agents alerted Mounties a shipment of goods deemed to be knock-offs had arrived from Thailand and was destined for her store. On Dec. 16, 2005, she signed a document acknowledging she had received and understood the RCMP warning, Christie said.

The "interesting sidebar" to the case, said Christie, was how months before her arrest, Topangu went to a Winnipeg trade show where Ontario-based company Altec Productions was an exhibitor among others, which were legitimately acting as agents for major designers.

She made arrangements at the show to purchase the items from Altec for her store.

Altec Productions was one of three Canadian companies fined a total of $2.5 million by a Federal Court judge in 2011 after being jointly sued by Louis Vuitton and Burberry for copyright infringement.

It was one of the largest Copyright Act settlements in Canada's history, Christie said.

"We can say that the big fish was caught with respect to this matter," Christie said, referring to Topangu as a "secondary player" who was wilfully blind as to where her merchandise was coming from.

Due to the fact Topangu went to a legitimate trade show and approached Altec, it was "unconscionable" for the justice department to initially seek a conditional jail sentence for her, defence lawyer Josh Weinstein said.

It wouldn't "necessarily smack of fairness" to imprison Topangu in her own home while Altec -- the larger player -- saw only fines, said Weinstein.

Martin endorsed a joint recommendation between the Crown and defence that saw Topangu fined $7,500.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2013 B5

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