Last month, we told you how Belize City resident Allyson Major sued the Government and the Police over the Firearms Amendment Act.
The law was changed by the Barrow Administration to crack down on crime, and the rationale was that by assigning collective responsibility for individual wrongdoing, the police would increase their chances of a conviction for illegal firearms. Or, to put it differently, the lawmakers figured that if his whole family was charged, the guilty son would be forced to 'fess up'.
Well, Allyson Major sued GSU and the court ruled that the police violated his constitutional rights. The pre-trial penalty of an automatic remand that Major was forced to endure violated his constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.
So since then, the law has been sort of on shaky grounds, and last week, Anthony Sylvestre, who successfully argued Major's case, represented one of 2 men who challenged the mandatory minimum sentence. They came at the draconian law from the other direction.
Up until last week, Magistrates were forced to sentence persons convicted of firearms charges the minimum of 5 years in jail. That's until last Wednesday when the Chief Justice, after considering the arguments put forward by attorneys Anthony Sylvestre and Dickie Bradley, ruled that 5 years in jail was too harsh a punishment.
Today, we spoke with Sylvestre about the win in court, and he told us that the judge repealed the law because it constituted a grossly disproportionate penalty:
Anthony Sylvestre, Attorney for the Claimants
"Mr. Conrad Vincent Smith, my client and the other gentleman who's a client of Mr. Bradley, both of them were charged with firearms related offences. I think in respect to Mr. Bradley's client he had a gun license and was charged with possession of a couple ammunitions above the prescribed gun license limit. In respect to Mr. Conrad Vincent Smith, he was charged with possession of a firearm. The constitution provides and allows a person who, even before he goes through a full trial that he's sentenced, if there's a likelihood that his constitutional right will be infringed. He can apply and ask the sitting Magistrate to state a case, which is to say to put a hold on the trial, and submit a question for the Supreme Court's determination. The question of which was submitted to the supreme court was whether the provisions of the firearms act, which provided a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for any firearm related offence, whether that sentence violated the protection against cruel and inhumane punishment. The arguments were put forward before the Honourable Chief Justice and essentially the Chief Justice, as you indicated, ruled that it was unconstitutional. What obtained is that in arriving at a determination of whether such a sentence was unconstitutional, the arguments that were put forward was that in some cases 5 years' sentence is an appropriate but there's other cases where a person is found with one ammunition and he has a gun license which may have expired maybe 2 months, that person might ought not to be sentenced for 5 years but maybe 6 months in prison. What it does now is it allows for the appropriate sentences to be passed in the cases rather than examine the sitting Magistrates hand being tied and being compelled to just impose a mandatory minimum of 5 years sentence."
The Chief Justice, in his judgment has substituted the word "shall" for "may" be sentenced to 5 years in jail. That according to attorneys who we've spoken to, is a huge change since it allows the magistrates to choose what penalties to hand convicted persons based on the individual circumstances. So, convicted persons will no longer get an automatic 5 years in jail.