Two men have been handed suspended sentences for separate importations of synthetic cannabinoids, in a protracted and unusual court case fraught with delay and misunderstanding.
Joshua Baker (32) and Bradley Watson (32) appeared before Guernsey’s Royal Court and Jurats yesterday morning, where they were spared prison time due to exceptional circumstances.
Both men were ultimately charged and sentenced separately, despite initially appearing on the same indictment. This was because they were previously part of a joint investigation. Nevertheless both appeared in court simultaneously.
Charges brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act had to be dropped after it emerged that the substance imported by Watson was not controlled at the time of importation.
Watson was held in custody on remand on the back of a previous prison sentence, for 64 days, until the court realised the charges were not as serious as first suggested and convened to grant bail after denying it.
Crown Prosecutor Chris Dunford made it clear throughout his submissions to the court that the imported substance was not controlled at the time of the offences, but has since been scheduled, which caused lengthy delays to both defendants' cases.
Baker was concerned with the importation of 3,121 grams of Class B MDMB-PINACA which was brought into the island concealed in a BMW windscreen washer reservoir.
The vehicle arrived in Guernsey from Poole in December 2020, where it was searched by Guernsey Border Agency. Samples taken from the washer reservoir were analysed and found to contain the synthetic cannabinoid.
Baker was subsequently arrested and his mobile was seized. A search of his home address found a small quantity of a white powder, namely the cathinone 4-CEC.
He told Police at interview that he was unaware vape liquid could contain controlled substances, but was aware of liquids containing CBD - which he admitted selling on the street.
Police served a RIPL notice to him but he did not comply. Baker was then charged with the related offence. He pleaded not guilty to the importation and the RIPL offence, but changed his plea in December.
In August 2020, a package was intercepted by customs with a tracking number that was found to contain two bottles of the synthetic JWH-018 labeled “blueberry jam” and “slush” respectively, totalling 208 grams.
Another package was intercepted the following month which contained a further five bottles of the liquid with a total weight of 369.4 grams.
The prosecution claimed Watson had knowledge of the illegality of the importation as his home address was not used on the parcels.
He was served a RIPL notice but refused to comply. The High Tech Crime Unit subsequently cracked his phone which showed Watson arranging the importation of the bottles for onward sale on the street.
Advocate Liam Roffey - defending Baker - called for full credit to be given to his guilty pleas, even though some were late, as he faced a number of allegations which were not pursued due to judiciary error.
He also requested a “meaningful reduction in his sentence” because of the incorrect original indictment.
He said this was “not spotted” by the island’s most senior prosecutor, the presiding judges, or the defense advocates. He noted a two year delay to proceedings, with a year-long process to rectify the error in the charges, through no fault of his client, which caused him an “intolerable level of stress and distress”.
“I’m not sure I've ever appeared in a court two-plus years after an arrest, particularly when a trial has not been needed,” Advocate Roffey said. He also highlighted the outlawing of PINACA occurred just months before the importation. Baker was completely unaware of the change, and his prior selling of the substance within Guernsey had been “completely legal”.
A press release issued by Bailiwick Law Enforcement about the improper importation of vape juice also demonstrated that many others were unaware, he added, with the misunderstanding extending to the judiciary too. “His state of knowledge in that respect is of the utmost relevance,” he said.
Baker’s debilitating ulcerative colitis was noted as having a “severe impact” on proceedings and his financial situation which led him to sell the vape juice for additional cash.
Advocate Andrew Ayres - defending Watson - agreed that the case had been “complicated from the very start” and couldn’t recall one so unusual. He said the revised factual outline of the case was accepted by his client in that he had imported a medicinal, uncontrolled product.
But Watson had been held in custody on the back of the errors of legal stakeholders, he added.
Advocate Ayres said the quantities of the drugs shouldn’t bear a major influence on Watson’s starting point. “Big improvements” to Watson’s life and relationship with his children were emphasised, following a marriage breakdown which resulted in offences and a prison sentence.
Advocate Ayres asked for a suspended sentence, given the charge misappropriation by the court, and in light of his renewed relationship with his young children.
Judge Catherine Fooks admitted that the case had been “slightly convoluted” and made clear that delays to pleas and sentencing would be accounted for. On Baker, she said while there was confusion around the legality of the substance it was a “highly sophisticated importation” for which he would have made a significant profit.
However, she noted the compelling representation made by his advocates and his debilitating medical condition, giving full credit for his pleas.
On Watson, Judge Fooks said he was not of previous good character but commended the visible changes made to his life since leaving prison, despite the fact he would’ve also made significant sums from selling the drugs.
The court took an exceptional course to not impose immediate prison sentences for drug importations and RIPL offences, but Judge Fooks said the actions in the case sets no precedent.
Baker was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for three years, and handed 150 hours of community service as a direct alternative to custody for failing to disclose his pin code.
Watson was sentenced to 10 months in prison, suspended for three years. Judge Fooks encouraged both men to not forget how close they came to prison.
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