Stabroek News

Court overturns three-year sentence imposed for 8 grammes of ganja

Carl Mangal

Four months after being sentenced to three years in jail for trafficking eight grammes of cannabis, renewing public concern over penalties for minor narcotics offences, Carl Mangal had the jail term overturned on Friday by the High Court.

Allowing an appeal Mangal had filed against the sentence, Justices Priya Sewnarine-Beharry and Sandil Kissoon, who heard Mangal’s challenge, declared that Principal Magistrate Judy Latchman, who imposed the three-year sentence, failed to ascertain whether the facts presented against him were true.

The judges said that the presiding magistrate failed to enquire from Mangal, who was unrepresented by counsel, whether the facts related by the prosecution against him were true and correct. The court noted in its ruling that after the charge was read to the defendant, to which he pleaded guilty, the prosecutor then presented the state’s case but at no time did the magistrate seek to ascertain from Mangal whether the facts presented against him by the state were true or not before imposing sentence.

The judges pointed out that Magistrate Latchman’s failure to find out from the defendant whether he had accepted the state’s case against him or not, nullified the sentence she subsequently imposed. This failure on the part of the magistrate, the court said, took away from her being able to determine, after Mangal would have pleaded, whether the guilty plea he entered should be sustained or perhaps changed to one of not guilty.

For those reasons, the Full Court allowed Mangal’s appeal. 

After the judges made their pronouncements, counsel for the state Shawnette Austin indicated that the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions had no objections to the appeal being allowed.

The charge against Mangal, a poultry farmer, stated that on May 18th, at Princes Street, Lodge, he had 8.4 grammes of cannabis in his possession for trafficking.

Thereafter, the magistrate handed down the three-year prison sentence and fined the 27-year-old $30,000.

However, the sentence sparked public outrage as many called for a review of the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In light of the circumstances, attorney Nigel Hughes offered legal representation to Mangal’s family and had been working on the appeal.

Mangal was subsequently granted $40,000 bail by the High Court, pending his appeal.

He had challenged the sentence on the principal ground that the magistrate failed to consider that the weight of the drug could amount to a special circumstance.

Voicing outrage at the three-year jail term against the farmer, the Alliance For Change (AFC) had renewed its calls for a review of the laws to ensure that custodial sentences for small quantities of marijuana were removed in their entirety.

The party, which is part of the ruling APNU+AFC coalition, had expressed deep concern after Mangal was sentenced.

In a statement, the party had noted that it was not questioning the decision of the magistrate in any way as it recognizes that the magistrate, as is the case with all her colleagues, was “constrained by the law with regard to the issue of custodial sentencing for possession of small quantities of marijuana.”

The party argued that possession of small quantities of marijuana is “an offence which is a mere error in judgement and not representative of criminal behaviour” but custodial sentences serve, in large measure, to criminalize young people, particularly young men who have been caught with these small quantities.

One of the party’s parliamentarians, Michael Carrington, tabled a bill designed to address this issue in the National Assembly. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill was tabled in December, 2015, in the name of Carrington but it is still on the order paper.

Most recently, President David Granger announced that Cabinet has approved the removal of custodial sentences for possession of small amounts of marijuana and the necessary amendments to existing legislation will be made after the National Assembly returns from recess.

At the time of sentencing, Magistrate Latchman had told Mangal’s tearful relatives that her ruling was in keeping with the law and that the family had the option of appealing the decision.

In a ruling on March 28th, however, Justice Jo-Ann Barlow found that the lower courts did have discretion to go below the minimum three-year sentence set by statute, given the particular circumstances of the case before it.

Referencing legislation and case law, the judge highlighted that courts can impose sentences which reflects the judge’s own assessment of the gravity of the conduct in the particular circumstance of the case before it.

Her ruling was based on an application brought by three persons who all challenged the penal provisions of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Control Act.

The applicants sought to challenge the constitutionality of the imposition of the mandatory minimum sentences prescribed by the Act.

Among other things, Justice Barlow had stated that in arriving at an appropriate sentence under the Narcotics Act, a court in assessing the circumstances to determine what are special reasons, must bear in mind that narcotics offences are serious offences, and that the Legislature by fixing mandatory minimum sentences was saying that they must be treated with seriousness given the effect that they have on society.

“In each case it is for the sentencing court to make a value judgement of the information that is before that court,” the judge had said.

Justice Barlow concluded that Section 73 of the Narcotics Act, having addressed special reasons, preserves that inherent jurisdiction that every judicial officer must possess at the time of sentencing an accused person.