Two acquitted over meter tampering, court urges more caution from police on charges

A magistrate has slammed lackadaisical practices that have led to the failure to convict persons accused of tampering with their electricity meters

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Matthew Agius
27 September 2017, 4:00pm
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech warned that the police should 'exercise great caution and discernment' and evaluate its evidence before filing charges
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech warned that the police should 'exercise great caution and discernment' and evaluate its evidence before filing charges
A magistrate has slammed lackadaisical practices, which led to the failure to convict persons accused of tampering with their electricity meters.

Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, herself a former prosecutor, warned that the police should “exercise great caution and discernment” and evaluate its evidence before filing charges, as she dismissed two such cases earlier this week.

In the first such case, Lewis Caruana was accused of stealing nearly €4000 worth of electricity in 2014, by bridging his electricity meter, which had shown signs of surge damage. He was also charged with complicity in corruption of public officials or employees. Caruana had denied the charges, insisting that the meter had been damaged by a lightning strike and that he had reported the damage.

The court observed that the prosecution had not engaged a handwriting expert to verify contested signatures on the inspection report and an evidence bag, nor had it attempted to summon Enemalta representatives to shed light on a discrepancy in the amount and numbering sequence of evidence bags, one of which carried a signature, which the accused denied was his.

Magistrate Frendo Dimech remarked that it was also relevant that none of the Enemalta officials who were present for the inspection, mentioned that Caruana had signed any evidence bags and had only mentioned one such bag in their report.

Above all, a court-appointed expert had unequivocally declared that the Smart Meter in question was simply faulty and had not been tampered with.

“Besides, the Court finds it hard to understand what could have made the police charge the accused with complicity in corruption of public officials or employees, which charges were confirmed in the note of renvoi, when these officials or employees - essential elements of this offence - do not emerge from any of the evidence.”

“The police have an obligation to protect citizens from gratuitous accusations made by third parties, conduct which could lead to criminal proceedings for calumnious accusations. Therefore when it comes to accuse a person itself, it is duty bound to exercise great caution and discernment, no matter how similar the case may be to other cases.”

Furthermore, the decision to press charges must be based on the evidence at hand. “This was a case marked by a total absence of evidence about the intervention of a public official or employee, an essential prerequisite for charges of corruption.”

Caruana was cleared of all charges.

In a similar decision, in another case of alleged meter tampering dating back to 2011, the same court noted that an Enemalta witness had failed to confirm that the meter in question belonged to the accused, Brian Jones, but had remembered that it was in the common area.

The meter was sited in the lift room on the garage level in a common area of the block of flats, where all the metres are affixed. The door to that room had a lock, the keys to which were held by all of the block’s inhabitants.

“Well I go down with the lift, you know, and there is a room there with meters. All the meters there. And they found these two men with a meter in their hand and they told me that they found something had been tampered or something. But I don’t know anything about meters or if it was our meter or not. I didn’t know that..... They were holding it, you know. They had it in their hands,” one of the block’s residents had testified.

Despite its misgivings about Jones’ claim to have never bothered checking the meter for the 10 years since moving in, the court observed that the prosecution’s case was “riddled with difficulties, which militate against the finding of guilt on the part of the accused:”

The estimate computed by Enemalta went back five years and was based on the actual consumption registered on the day the meter was changed. At that time of the surprise inspection, the appliances using electricity had been listed on a document.

“No evidence was produced in a bid to determine whether consumption had been regular nor was evidence produced to determine whether in the period on which the estimate was based, the appliances were the same, thus accounting for a finding that over five years the accused consistently utilised 22.3 units of electricity daily. Although such an estimate may suffice for purposes of civil proceedings, the same cannot apply in criminal proceedings where a much higher level of proof, that beyond reasonable doubt, needs to be proven.”

More importantly, said the court, no expert had been appointed to determine whether the meter had indeed been tampered with and whether the tampering had led to electricity theft.

Quoting the 1990 court of appeal judgment in Police vs Raymond Abela, the court said “As the presumption is so ferocious, the court understands that to apply the presumption, the dishonest measures must be conclusively proven and not in such a way as to simply give rise to suspicion...the measures must be such as to have the effect of stopping or changing the measurements or recordings.”

Ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, as required in the Criminal law field, the court also acquitted Jones of all charges.

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Court reporter Matthew Agius is a Legal Procurator and Commissioner for Oaths. Prior to re...