Court acquits man of 2012 drug trafficking conspiracy

A 30-year-old man from Msida has been cleared of charges relating to a conspiracy to import and traffic cannabis in 2012

A 30-year-old man from Msida has been cleared of charges relating to a conspiracy to import and traffic cannabis in 2012, despite having admitted during his police interrogation, after a court declared that it could not convict him solely on the strength of a statement released in the absence of his lawyer.

In his testimony, prosecuting police inspector Malcolm Bondin had made reference to the sworn statements of two men, who had assisted the police in identifying several persons of interest, amongst them Steve Vassallo.

A subsequent search of Vassallo’s residence turned up paraphernalia used in drug trafficking, the court had been told. The inspector explained that Vassallo had refused to consult with a lawyer before his interrogation, and had released a statement explaining that he had a drug problem and explained his role in the cannabis importation conspiracy. He was subsequently arraigned in court and charged with drug trafficking.

In her judgment, deciding the case, Magistrate Elaine Mercieca observed that one of the men whose statement had been made reference to by the prosecution had refused to testify in this case due to pending criminal proceedings in his regard.

The magistrate examined what the law stated with regards to sworn declarations in which guilt was admitted, noting that the Criminal Code stipulates that a confession is only admissible as evidence against the person making it and nobody else. However, when such a statement had been sworn before a magistrate, its contents could still be used as evidence.

But as Vassallo was charged as a co-accused, another section of the Code applied, which prohibited a testimony by a co-accused until proceedings against that co-accused were concluded.

The court observed that in this case, the proceedings against the other man were still ongoing, and so despite his sworn statement being exhibited in the acts, it was necessary for him to testify and be cross-examined by the defence. This had not happened, pointed out the magistrate, ruling that the court could not rest on the contents of the sworn statement for the purposes of convicting the accused.

In addition to this, the Magistrate observed that the arresting police officers had testified to having found drug paraphernalia: roaches, digital scales, sealing bags, tobacco, rolling papers and the like, but no drugs were found. “As a consequence, Steve Vassallo was not found in possession of any illicit substance during the search that was carried out.”

As Vassallo’s interrogation had taken place in 2012, before the right to legal assistance during interrogation had been introduced into the law, he had also not been offered this possibility.

Making reference to recent local jurisprudence on the matter of unassisted statements, the magistrate observed that the accused had made self-incriminating declarations in them and that this constituted the only evidence against the accused.

After taking into account the principles established by case law relating to the probatory value of such a statement, in particular, that of “overall fairness” of proceedings, the court said that it was not of the opinion that it should rest on it for establishing guilt, in the absence of other decisive evidence.

For these reasons, together with the conclusions of the court-appointed expert, who had not detected any drugs on the items seized from Vassallo’s home, the court declared the man not guilty of all charges.

Lawyer Jason Grima was defence counsel to Vassallo.