Judgment Title: D.P.P.-v- Jonathan Ducque
Composition of Court: Geoghegan J., Budd J., O'Neill J.
Judgment by: Geoghegan J.
Status of Judgment: Approved
Outcome: Refuse leave to appeal
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THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALGeoghegan J.
THE PEOPLE AT THE SUIT OF THE
DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS
ApplicantJUDGMENT of the Court delivered by Mr. Justice Geoghegan on 15th day of July 2005
This is an application for leave to appeal against a twelve year sentence of imprisonment from the 16th June, 2003 which was imposed on 29th July, 2004 arising out of a plea of guilty in the Dublin Circuit Court in a prosecution for possession of drugs on 16th June, 2003 for sale or supply in excess of €13,000 contrary to section 15A (as inserted by section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1999) and section 27 (as amended by section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1999) of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977. The correct approach to sentencing for this offence has given rise to considerable difficulty because of quite complex statutory provisions requiring prima facie a minimum sentence of ten years but also providing for exemption from that mandatory requirement in certain circumstances. The maximum sentence for the offence is life imprisonment. It is important to summarise the facts of this particular case before returning to the legal problems relating to sentencing.
The applicant in consideration of €1,000 was asked to pick up a car at a certain city centre point and drive it to a particular place. At all material times the applicant knew that a consignment of prohibited drugs was in the car, though he claimed that he had no idea that it was anything like the quantity which it was in fact. The Garda Síochána, as a consequence of some prior information which they had obtained, stopped the car within minutes of the applicant driving it with the consignment and, therefore, for all practical purposes he was caught red-handed. It then emerged that ecstasy tablets to a value somewhere in the range of €2.09 million to €2.69 million were in various containers in the car. By any standard this was a huge haul. The applicant was questioned by the gardaí in thirteen interviews intermittently over a period of about thirty seven hours though in a perfectly lawful manner and from a relatively early stage he indicated that he would plead guilty. However, he was not prepared to give the gardaí any information relating to the relevant contacts in respect of the contraband. He indicated that this was because he was frightened. It is not necessary to go into the factual background in any more detail except to comment that in different interviews with the gardaí the applicant changed his story somewhat and admitted that he had lied at the previous interview.
There was a certain amount of character evidence given in his favour. He was said to have come from a very tragic background in that both his father and mother died when he was young and both were drug addicts. He spent his early years in state care and in foster care. He lived with a foster family from the age of five to eleven years which he found difficult. From the age of eleven to fourteen he lived in a children’s home in Clontarf. He was ten years of age when his father died and fourteen years of age when his mother died. After the mother’s death he went to live with his grandmother in Finglas but to the chagrin of his grandmother he got involved in anti-social behaviour and crime. The grandmother was not really able to cope as she was bringing up his brother and three cousins. According to a report which was before the Circuit Court the applicant started drinking and taking drugs (hash and ecstasy) at the age of fifteen to sixteen years and became involved in crime. When he came to be sentenced in the Dublin Circuit Court by Judge O’Donnell he had some forty previous convictions, admittedly, most of them for road traffic offences though they included one for burglary and one for receiving stolen property. On the occasion of his sentencing for this offence, Judge O’Donnell first sentenced him in respect of a count of aggravated burglary which had taken place at about 7 a.m. on 26th August, 2002 and was on a separate indictment. It was obviously a particularly brutal burglary involving a terrifying invasion of a house occupied by a Romanian family. The judge sentenced the applicant to seven years imprisonment in relation to that offence and then went on to sentence him to twelve years imprisonment in respect of the offence the subject matter of this appeal.
(3B) Where a person (other than a child or young person) is convicted of an offence under section 15A, the court shall, in imposing sentence, specify as the minimum period of imprisonment to be served by that person a period of not less than 10 years imprisonment.
(ii) the circumstances in which the indication was given,
The court has been referred to three reserved judgments of this court. It would seem desirable to deal with each chronologically and extract the principles which appear to emerge from them. Having done that exercise it is then proposed to analyse and discuss a particular submission made to the court by Mr. O’Hanlon, S.C., counsel for the applicant.
The first case of importance is The People (DPP) v. Renald unreported judgment of the court delivered by Murphy J. on the 23rd November, 2001. As Hardiman J. pointed out in the later case of Botha already cited, Renald has been regularly cited with approval by the court ever since. Two important principles are to be extracted from Renald but the one which is relevant to this case is that even in a case where the court is not bound by the mandatory sentence of ten years due to there being “exceptional and specific circumstances” within the meaning of subsection (3C) of section 27 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977 as amended by section 5 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1999, the sentencing court should have regard to the fact that the Oireachtas thought fit to impose on a prima facie basis a mandatory sentence of ten years thereby reflecting the view of the Oireachtas as to the seriousness of the offence. The existence of the statutory provision for the mandatory ten year sentence therefore was not to be regarded as irrelevant when considering a sentence in a situation where exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence existed and so subsection (3C) applied. However, especially in the light of Mr. O’Hanlon’s submissions to which I will be returning, there are, in the opinion of the court, issues to be explored as to the context in which the principles enunciated in the Renald case are to be applied.
The next case to be considered is one of considerable importance in the context of the submissions made on behalf of the applicant in this particular case. The People (DPP) v. Duffy, unreported judgment of this court delivered by Keane C.J. on the 21st December, 2001, was an application for leave to appeal against a sentence in a section 15A case. The former Chief Justice set out the relevant statutory provisions and then adverted to the fact that section 27(3B) provided for a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment in respect of a conviction under section 15A. He then referred to section 27 subsection (3C) which provided that subsection (3B) was not to apply where the court was satisfied that there were exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence which would make such a sentence “unjust in all the circumstances”. He further pointed out that there were certain matters to which the court might have regard for that purpose including a plea of guilty by the accused “and his/her having materially assisted in the investigation of the offence.”
It is then explained in the judgment how the learned Circuit Court judge had arrived at his sentence. That judge (Judge O’Leary) had taken the view that he should in the first instance assess the length of sentence which should be imposed on the assumption that there were no mitigating factors. He should then take into account “the various mitigating factors” and make whatever deduction was appropriate from that sentence (this court’s emphasis). Keane C.J. went on to explain what the Circuit Court judge then did as follows:
“If that approach resulted in a sentence which was in excess of the statutory minimum, then that would be the sentence which he would impose. If, however, that process resulted in a sentence which was below the statutory minimum, he would consider whether, having regard to the provision by the Oireachtas for such a statutory minimum sentence, he should increase the sentence to the statutory minimum.”
“The learned Circuit Court judge then went on to assess the appropriate deductions that he considered should be made from that sentence of fifteen years. First, he made a deduction of slightly less than one third in respect of the plea of guilty, resulting in a sentence of nine years imprisonment. To allow then for this having been a first offence, he reduced the period by a further three years, resulting in the sentence of six years actually imposed.”
This court does not have the benefit of seeing the transcript of the sentencing by Judge O’Leary in the Duffy case. Without the benefit of seeing it, the passage just quoted from the former Chief Justice’s judgment presents two possible difficulties. One is that it would appear from the judgment that the Circuit Court judge had taken all normal factors into account which are described in the judgment as “the appropriate deductions” and which presumably would have included the plea of guilty, he arrived at an initial sentence of six years. Indeed, that is the approach favoured by counsel for the applicant in this case, Mr. O’Hanlon. But if that approach is adopted there would seem to be problems about taking the plea of guilty of itself into account a second time for the purposes of considering whether the mandatory minimum sentence should apply. First of all there is nothing exceptional about a plea of guilty, it is one of the commonest occurrences in any criminal trial. Secondly, it seems to be at least implied in the judgment of this court delivered by Hardiman J. in Botha cited above that importance must be attached to the conjunctive “and, if so,” in the statutory provision so that a plea of guilty can only be relevant to an escape from the mandatory minimum sentence if there are other circumstances which effectively can render the combination of the plea of guilty and those circumstances to be exceptional circumstances. These can include the stage at which the accused indicated the intention to plead guilty, the circumstances in which the indication was given and whether that person materially assisted in the investigation of the offence. What seems to have happened in the Duffy case was that Judge O’Leary in considering whether it would be unjust to impose the statutory minimum sentence took into account the fact that the applicant had not only pleaded guilty to the offence with which he was dealing but that he had also expressed a desire to plead guilty on an additional charge on which he had yet to be returned. Presumably, that provided the “exceptional and specific circumstances”.
What is important however is that Keane C.J. made it clear that the court was “satisfied that the approach adopted by the learned Circuit Court judge in the present case was essentially in harmony with the law as explained by Murphy J. in that passage.” This was a reference to the material passage in Renald asserting the relevance of the existence of a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence even in a case where the court did not consider it should apply. The former Chief Justice then went on to say the following:
“While there might be other approaches that might be adopted which would also be in harmony with that statement of the law, it is clear that the trial judge in deciding what sentence he should ultimately impose took into account as a relevant factor the existence of the statutory minimum sentence, as he was not only entitled but bound to do.”
At this point it is relevant to refer to a passage in the sentencing judgment of Judge O’Donnell in the Circuit Court in this case. He said the following:
“The offence to which you have pleaded guilty carries with it a maximum sentence of life or such shorter period as the court may determine. However, the value of the drugs found in the possession of a person, other than a child or young person, convicted under section 15A, is €13,000 or in excess of it. The court shall in imposing sentence specify a period of not less than ten years imprisonment. This mandatory, minimum sentence shall not apply where the court is satisfied that there are exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence or the person convicted of the offence which would make a sentence of not less than ten years unjust in all the circumstances and for that purpose the court may have regard to any matters, any matters it considers appropriate including: whether the person pleaded guilty to the offence, and if so, the stage at which he indicated the intention to plead guilty, and the circumstances in which the indication was given, and whether the person materially assisted in the investigation of the offence. These appropriate matters are not to be considered in isolation but together. They are joined together by the word ‘and’ a mere plea of guilty is not an exceptional and/or specific circumstance. One may look at all the circumstances pertaining to the offence or the person in deciding whether they are exceptional and specific. In this view I quote from the Court of Criminal Appeal case … of Phillipus Botha given on the 19th January 2004 that in considering the circumstances in the broader sense that, ‘the circumstances in which a sentence less than the one imposed for this offence could be imposed must indeed be very exceptional.’ The court goes on to say that, ‘unenumerated circumstances relied upon as putting the case into a category where it would be unjust to impose the minimum sentence, must be both exceptional and specific.’ And at an earlier passage dealing with those people who are in very reduced financial circumstances and who are additionally foolish, old or very young and impressionable are particularly sought to act as couriers for a pathetically small amount. The position of those persons must be distinguished from those who are more calculatedly involved in the supply of drugs. There is every scope to do this since the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, and I do that, and I do take them into consideration. I have also had the opportunity of reading … yes, as I have said the broad principles enunciated there, and I agree with all of what the court said there in that case.”
Mr. O’Hanlon argues that the first exercise in which a sentencing court should engage is to arrive at the appropriate sentence as if subsections (3B) and (3C) did not exist but bearing in mind of course the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He says that in arriving at that “appropriate sentence” (hereinafter referred to as the “notional sentence”) deductions should be made on all the normal criteria, one of those being a plea of guilty irrespective of when it is made. Obviously, of course, the credit for a late plea of guilty is quite different from the credit for an earlier plea. If, having arrived at the notional sentence, it emerges that it is more than ten years then that is the appropriate sentence. While there is much to be said for this approach in general as it is in line with the approach adopted by Judge O’Leary and approved by this court in Duffy’s case, the end part of that submission needs qualification. Bearing in mind the reasoning of this court in Renald, the notional sentence would normally have to be on the higher end of a range of possible sentences. Subject to that proviso, however, this court would not disagree with the submission of Mr. O’Hanlon.
If, however, the notional sentence turns out to be less than ten years then prima facie subsection (3B) applies so as to impose the ten year sentence unless subsection (3C) applies. In considering whether the latter subsection applies or not, a plea of guilty without more and especially a late plea could not normally be taken into account because it would rarely if ever constitute “exceptional and specific circumstances”. It is in this exercise, that is to say, the issue of whether subsection (3C) applies or not that the strict requirements enunciated in the judgment of Hardiman J. in Botha come into play.
Although the learned Circuit Court judge did not precisely adopt this interpretation of the section, nevertheless, the court is absolutely satisfied that he arrived at the correct result. The sentence which the judge imposed was twelve years which is two years more than the minimum statutory sentence. He made no error in imposing such a sentence given the size of the drugs haul, the previous criminal career of the applicant, the absence of any specific and exceptional circumstance such as for instance cooperation with the gardaí which there was not. Even if for the purpose of arriving at a so called “notional sentence” it was right to take the plea of guilty into account as indeed it would have been, the sentence of twelve years was still quite appropriate. The court considers that a sentence less than twelve years would have been inappropriate. Accordingly, the application for leave to appeal will be refused.
The People (DPP) v. Ducque