If you plead guilty, you accept the punishment awarded

In a judgement delivered by the Court of Criminal Appeal on 5 August 2013 by Mr Justice David Scicluna for Il-Pulizija v. Elaine Muscat, the court ruled that when an accused pleads guilty to a crime, he or she is also bowing to the punishment that the court will award.

Muscat was accused of having loitered for prostitution on 22 June 2013 at 11.30pm, in breach of her bail conditions (which had been ordered by the same judge) for three other cases, of 8 April, 27 May and 14 March 2013. The court was asked to revoke the bail she had been granted in these three separate cases.

On 26 June 2013, the Magistrates' Court found Muscat guilty of the charges brought against her. She had pleaded guilty to them all. She was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. The court also revoked the bail and ordered her arrest.

Muscat appealed this judgement on the grounds that the law gives a guideline regarding when the conditions of bail are breached and that the circumstances of the case should be taken into consideration. The appellant explained that she always attended court sittings and that she should be presumed innocent in the other cases. She claimed that the fact that she was found not to be at home when the court had ordered otherwise was not a serious breach and did not affect the court proceedings. Muscat in her appeal quoted judgements that made a distinction between serious breaches of bail, such as when the accused speaks to the witnesses in a case. In Muscat's case, this was not an issue and, therefore, the punishment of nine months imprisonment was too harsh.

The court pointed out that when Muscat had pleaded guilty, a lawyer assisted her and that the court had warned her of the consequences of pleading guilty to these charges. The court noted that her guilty plea was not conditional.

The court stated that when one pleads guilty, it is a little odd to then appeal the punishment awarded (as long as that punishment is within the parameters of the law). If an accused pleads guilty, he or she is taking responsibility for that decision and must accept the punishment that the court awards. The Appellant Court will examine whether a punishment is excessive at law, but at the same time it rarely disturbs the discretion of the first court in awarding a punishment, if that punishment falls within the limits of the law. The court stressed that an early guilty plea does not give the accused an automatic right to a reduction in the sentence.

The court examined the charges and punishment and found that the maximum prison sentence is six months for loitering for prostitution. As to breaching the conditions of bail, there is a maximum prison sentence of six months also, and the guarantee could have been confiscated in the government's favour. Since there were four concurrent offences, the maximum prison sentence could have been 15 months, which could have been increased to 18, since Muscat was a recidivist. Therefore, the nine-month prison sentence fell within the limits of the law.

The court quoted a previous judgement it had delivered in February 2007 on the curfew that a court may impose on bail conditions. It said that the European Convention on Human Rights allows a court to impose conditions to assure itself that the accused will appear. A curfew is a justified condition in order to make sure that the accused does not escape or hide, and to prevent additional crimes.

The court held that Muscat had been awarded bail three times and that all three entailed a curfew. These conditions had been accepted and, therefore, Muscat's appeal was rejected.

Malcolm Mifsud is a partner at Mifsud & Mifsud Advocates

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I am no lawyer and I submit that in its wisdom the courts did take action according to law. I have meet a lot of these so called loitering women and spoke frankly with these poor souls. Do the court realize that most if not all of these women do not do it because of the fun of it? Do someone realize that these fellow people mostly do it to keep and feed a family? will there be any good will coming out of sending these people to jail? I always hoped that these people deserve compassion and help from the state and get all support that they deserve. Find the cause please? These souls are begging for help. Of course those high ups who ever they may be would not understand how poor are those left to rot in the streets.

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