General — 14 May 2016 — by Rowland A. Parks
Mandatory 5-year minimum sentence under the Firearms Act is unconstitutional

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 12, 2016–Before the constitutionality of the minimum 5-year sentence under the stipulation of the Firearms Act was challenged in the Supreme Court, any person found guilty of committing an offense under the act was subject to a minimum, mandatory 5-year prison sentence, but sitting magistrates are no longer bound by that strict application of the law, because the Supreme Court has ruled that the mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years is unconstitutional.

    The first successful challenge of the Firearms Act occurred when Allyson Major filed a claim in the Supreme Court, alleging that two Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) police officers had violated his constitutional right when he was arrested, charged and remanded in prison for possession of illegal firearms and ammunition.

    Madam Justice Michelle Arana ruled that Major’s constitutional right to his presumption of innocence was violated when he was remanded to prison for possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition.

    In another challenge to the Firearms Act that was filed by Vincent Smith and argued by attorneys Dickie Bradley and Anthony Sylvestre, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin ruled last week Wednesday that the minimum sentence of 5 years under the act was cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution of Belize.

    The Dean Barrow-led United Democratic Party (UDP) government had steered several amendments of the Firearms Act through the National Assembly in order to stiffen the penalties for persons convicted of firearm-related offences. The government’s rationale for writing stiffer penalties in the law was that it would curb the number of offences that were being committed with firearms.

    With a precedent now set at the higher court, magistrates are no longer bound to impose the minimum 5-year prison sentence, especially for first-time offenders who are convicted of firearm-related offences.

    Sylvestre explained the implication of the constitutional challenge of two Supreme Court rulings:

    “Mr. Conrad Vincent Smith, my client, and the other gentleman, who is a client of Mr. Bradley, both of them were charged with firearm-related offences. I think in respect of Mr. Bradley’s client, he had a gun license and was charged with possession of some ammunition above the prescribed gun license limit.

    “In respect of Conrad 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, if there’s a likelihood that his constitutional right will be infringed, he can 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.”

    Sylvestre further explained, “The question that 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 Honorable Chief Justice and essentially, the Chief Justice, as you indicated, ruled that it was unconstitutional.”

    Sylvestre added, “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 a 5-year sentence is appropriate, but there’s other cases where a person is found with one round of ammunition and he has a gun license which may have expired maybe 2 months, that person ought not to be sentenced to 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 the sitting magistrate’s hand being tied and being compelled to just impose a mandatory minimum 5-year 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,” Sylvestre said.

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