Prison sentence for drug possession becomes €50 fine after judge finds insufficient evidence

A man convicted for aggravated possession of cocaine and cannabis, had his sentence overturned on appeal

A man’s conviction for aggravated possession of cocaine and cannabis – and the 9-month prison sentence and €800 fine that came with it - has been overturned and converted to just a €50 fine for simple possession on appeal, after a judge ruled that the man’s conviction was based on insufficient evidence.

In 2015 31-year-old Jonathan Farrugia had filed an appeal after being found guilty of aggravated possession of the drugs and handed a 9-month prison sentence, together with a fine of €800.

The whole case was based around the testimony of Tarquin Vella who had claimed to have purchased the drugs from Farrugia.

Vella had been arrested in a counter-narcotics operation in 2009 and had declared to the police that he had bought a gram of cocaine from Farrugia at the Birzebbuga feast that year. But the police had only searched Farrugia’s residence 9 months later, in May 2010, finding empty plastic sachets, baking powder and remains of plastic sachets with traces of white powder, later confirmed to be cocaine. Traces of medicines used for poultry were also discovered.

But Vella’s conduct and testimony were so unconvincing that the court had ordered he be investigated for perjury. It noted that after releasing a statement, Vella had denied not only making it but had denied confirming it on oath before a magistrate, saying that he had never even been taken before a magistrate. He also claimed the signature on the sworn statement was not his. At the same time, he had changed his version of events given in the statement after eventually accepting that he had actually given the police a statement.

It emerged - from the court’s investigation and not because Vella had made it known- that the witness had pending criminal proceedings against him and his declaration could potentially qualify him for a reduced sentence.

Farrugia based his appeal on Vella’s lack of credibility, asking how he could be believed to have bought a gram of cocaine and not some other substance.

“Naturally, the appellant makes this submission in the larger context of the case, because Tarquin Vella refers to an allegation in August 2009 whilst the search of the accused’s residence took place in May 2010,” said the court.

Although the police naturally needed time to investigate, said the court, what happened in this case was that the information given by Vella had been used by the prosecution as evidence of future possession of cocaine and when it charged the accused it did so over an offence that took place in 2009 and not 2010 and the years before it.

Mr. Justice Giovanni Grixti, presiding the Court of Criminal Appeal, said that although the first court’s sentence was detailed, logical and based on correct legal principles, he still had a “lurking doubt” as to the finding of guilt, also because of allegations of friction at the workplace involving the accused and the witness.

“Even if in his deposition, the accused was slightly evasive, this court is not convinced that the case against the accused was proven beyond reasonable doubt as required in the criminal justice process,” said the judge.

For this reason, the court cleared the accused of the first charge – that of supplying the drug and revoked the punishment of 9 months imprisonment and the fine of €800. It confirmed the judgment in finding him guilty of simple possession and the punishment of a €50 fine.

Lawyer Arthur Azzopardi was counsel to Farrugia.