Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall delivered a bombshell ruling this week in the lawsuit filed by former Minister of Health Joe Coye against businessman Alfred Schakron, owner of JEC & Co. Ltd., in which he was accusing Schakron of malicious prosecution when he complained to police that the former minister had allegedly gotten $275,000 in hand for a parcel of prime Belize City land — funds that the Government claims never made it into their coffers.
The dispute was over the sale of the former Putt Putt lands, situated opposite the Princess Hotel and Casino on Newtown Barracks. The 1,349.54 square meters is equivalent to a third of an acre, and listed as parcel 1057, block 45, in Kings Park, within the Caribbean Shores Constituency, held by Coye at the time when Schakron acquired the land for a craft market.
The only payment the Government had on record was BZ$18,917.10, for the sale in December 2007, purportedly for stamp duties and certificate fees.
Coye and Schakron were the only two witnesses called in court. One of the main tasks in the case, said the judge, was to decide whom to believe. However, the judge found the former minister’s testimony to be shaky in more respects than one:
“I saw the claimant give his evidence. I observed his demeanor. I saw his hesitation in answering questions. I observe[d] his lack of frankness and his answers in cross-examination, some of which are quoted…” said Legall.
The judge also commented: “The oral testimony of the claimant in cross-examination does not do very much to strengthen his credibility.”
One example was the problem with establishing the length of time Coye has known Schakron. We quote from the court ruling: “I [Coye] came to know the defendant [Schakron] when I commenced politics. …I cannot say that I knew the defendant for more than 10 years. I know [stet] the defendant for some period of time between 1989 to when this matter occurred. I know the defendant for more than 1 year. I cannot say for sure I know him for more than 5 years. It is possible I know the defendant for more than 4 years.”
The judge also said that in the cross-examination, Coye said that he did not do any accounting work for Schakron’s company, J.E.C.; yet he said it was possible that the company drew a $10,000 cheque in his, Coye’s, name.
“On the facts of the case before me,” said Justice Legall, “I believe that the defendant was truthful when he said that he received a call from the claimant who said he wanted $275,000 for the land. I believe on the balance of probabilities that the claimant sent Mr. Flowers [his official driver] for the money which the defendant paid. I believe from the facts and circumstances of this case and on the balance of probabilities that the claimant received the money from Mr. Flowers, his driver. The defendant therefore acted without malice and on reasonable and probable cause when he reported the matter to police.”
The judge then ordered that Coye’s case be dismissed, and awarded costs to Schakron in the matter.
Dr. Elson Kaseke of Kaseke & Company and Anthony Sylvestre of Musa & Balderamos appeared for Joe Coye, while Rodwell Williams, SC, of Barrow & Williams, and Michel Chebat appeared for Schakron.
Cornel Flowers, Coye’s official driver, was charged along with Coye in 2008 in the Belize City Magistrate’s Court for theft and obtaining property by deception; but in July that year, the charges were dismissed. Schakron did not recant his statements to authorities, but told them that he did not wish to proceed because he had been threatened. (There is no indication by whom.)
In his declaration to the current Minister of Natural Resources (lands) Gaspar Vega, quoted in the court ruling, Schakron claimed that Flowers did collect $575,000 in installments between June 2007 and December 2007, but returned $300,000 in an envelope in late February 2008. That left a balance of $275,000.
Justice Legall, in his ruling, said that Coye demonstrated that he played a role in the purchase of the Putt Putt land while he was in Cabinet; however, “He [Coye] testified that at no time did he call the defendant and demand $275,000 for the land, nor did he receive any money from the defendant or from his driver for the land.”
In the Coye-Schakron case, the judge also said that the case raised serious issues of jurisprudence in Belize: Under what circumstances would private citizens be liable for malicious prosecution where they have reported possible unlawful activity to the police?
“Private citizens should be prevented or discouraged from using the police and the criminal jurisdiction of the courts for wrongfully causing embarrassment or harm to others, or to settle personal vendettas,” the judge commented. “But, on the other hand, private citizens should not be prevented or discouraged from reporting offences and crimes to the police because of fear of civil action for malicious persecution, if the report proves to be unfounded. The law ought to strike a reasonable balance between these two positions and set required standards.”
Malicious prosecution could be claimed in the event where the account of the complainant is false and malicious, he noted.
In October 2009, the Government of Belize lost the misfeasance suits it had brought against Joe Coye and former Minister of Lands, Florencio Marin, Sr., demanding the payment of $924,056.60, plus damages and interest, for the sale of 59 parcels of land in Coye’s former constituency Caribbean Shores, between December 2007 and February 7, 2008.
The matter did not even get to full hearing. Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh declared that although the former ministers could be sued, the Attorney General of Belize, the claimant in the case, could not use this avenue to seek redress, because the tort of misfeasance, which was being levied against the ministers for alleged abuse of public office, applies for private citizens.