Wignacourt hotel thief has prison term changed to probation on appeal

The court took into account the fact that the crime had been committed 19 years ago, and that the man had since turned his life around, noting that sending him to jail could result in the man relapsing

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

The Court of Criminal Appeal has reduced an 18-month prison sentence which had been handed to a man from Birkirkara 19 years ago, to probation after noting that at this stage, it would be better for both him and society in general.

In 2014, Reginald Bugeja had been convicted of two thefts in which several items were stolen from the Wignacourt Hotel and a garage in March 2000.

He was jailed for 18 months by a court of Magistrates, which had noted his “immensely alarming” criminal record. The items stolen had included seven colour TVs and tools.

His lawyer, Edward Gatt, had filed an appeal in which he argued that the case was already 14 years old at the time of conviction and that during this time, the accused had completely turned his life around. At the time of committing the offence, he had been going through a period of heavy drug use which he had since overcome, said the lawyer.

The court of Magistrates had not found him guilty of relapsing during the operative period of a suspended sentence but had opted to jail him anyway, observed the lawyer, saying that it was not in the interest of reform to throw him into prison.

Moreover, his co-accused had been acquitted in the light of the fact that the items allegedly stolen had a very low value and had been taken from a hotel which had been “almost abandoned”.

Although he had a long criminal record, the accused had paid for all of his misdeeds, said the lawyer. 

In view of his reform and the lapse of so many years since the crime, the sentence merited modification, he argued.

The Court of Criminal Appeal observed that the appeal was not so much on the amount of prison time he was sentenced to, but on the time which had passed since the commission of the crime and his subsequent reform as justification for the imposition of an alternative punishment to prison. As he had been cleared of relapsing and of breaching a suspended sentence, he was an ideal candidate for alternative punishment, given his cooperation with the police, his lawyer had argued.

The Court of Criminal Appeal, presided by Madame Justice Edwina Grima examined the man’s criminal record, noting that he had his first run-in with the law at 16 and that this had likely been attributable to personal problems which started at age 10, when his father had died.

“It appears that the appellant found rest and refuge in the world of drugs which unfortunately had led to his life deteriorating to the point where he fell into a web of criminality and ended up committing a number of thefts over several years to maintain his habit.”

It ruled that there was no doubt that the first court had imposed a punishment that fell within the parameters permissible by law and that the appellant’s criminal past was alarming.

However, after careful examination of the reports of probation officers and their conclusions, as well as after taking into account the passage of 19 years since the commission of the offence – which the court was careful not to attribute to either of the parties – and his current stable and law-abiding life, the Court of Criminal Appeal said it feared he would relapse into drug abuse and criminality if incarcerated.

For this reason, it confirmed the finding of guilt, but reformed the sentence, changing it from 18 months’ imprisonment to probation for three years, during which time, Bugeja is to receive treatment for addictions and psychological problems.

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