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Justice Gillian Lucky

Derek Achong

A 63-year-old fisherman from Carenage, who is serving a little under 15 years in prison for marijuana trafficking, has lost his appeal over his conviction.

Delivering an oral judgment yesterday, Appellate Judges Mark Mohammed, Gillian Lucky and Malcolm Holdip ruled that although the High Court Judge who presided over Peter Coltes’ trial made minor errors in summing up the case to the jury that eventually convicted him, no substantial miscarriage of justice occurred which would warrant overturning his conviction.

According to the evidence in the case, Coltes was arrested by T&T Coast Guard officers off the coast of Chaguaramas on July 29, 2006.

Responding to a report of a suspicious vessel travelling from Venezuela to Trinidad, the officers left the Coast Guard’s Staubles Bay base and intercepted the 30-foot pirogue, which was captained by Coltes and contained a passenger. The officers reportedly signalled to the men to stop the boat but they sped off. The officers claimed that they saw the passenger throwing two black plastic bags overboard before the vessel was eventually intercepted.

The officers made the men recover the packages and Coltes allegedly admitted that the packages contained marijuana before they were escorted back to the base to be handed over to the police. The bags were found to contain 37.6 kilos of marijuana.

When questioned by police, Coltes allegedly said: “Boss, that is mine. When I see the Coast Guard, I get frightened and throw it overboard.”

After Coltes was convicted during a retrial in 2019, Justice Maria Wilson began with a starting sentence of 20 years in prison but reduced it by three years due to the age of the offence and Coltes’ age at the time. Justice Wilson also deducted the 806 days Coltes spent on remand before he was able to access bail.

In the appeal, Coltes’ lawyer John Heath claimed that Justice Wilson made an error when she advised the jury on how to consider the oral utterances given to the Coast Guard officers in a similar fashion to the police officers.

Justice Lucky, who delivered the judgment, ruled that the same rules and procedures on the utterances that applied to the police should apply to other arms of the protective services such as the Coast Guard, who also carry out law enforcement duties.

As a second issue in the appeal, the panel had to consider whether Justice Wilson was wrong to include the terms of section 21 of the Dangerous Drugs Act in her route to verdict to the jury.

Under the legislation, when illegal drugs are found in a vessel, vehicle, aircraft, or property, the occupier or persons in control of the same must prove that the drugs were there without their knowledge and consent.

After Coltes was convicted in his first trial, the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial but ruled that section 21 was properly applied.

Based on the Appeal Court’s ruling, the provisions were included by Justice Wilson in her summation in the retrial.

However, in the judgment, Justice Lucky ruled that it should not have applied, as the drugs were actually found in the water and not in the vessel, where the Coast Guard officers allegedly first saw it. Justice Lucky noted that even without the deeming provision, there was still enough circumstantial evidence in the case for the jury to have convicted Coltes of drug trafficking.

Following the ruling, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) George Busby, who represented the State, requested that the judgment be made into a written form so that DPP Roger Gaspard, SC could provide guidance to members of the protective services for future arrests.