From the Courts
June 25, 2004

Risto Benjie freed by Appeal Court

The Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal sitting in St. Vincent freed Jamaican national Michael ‘Risto Benjie’ Benjamin from prison when it upheld his appeal against sentence on Wednesday.{{more}}
Benjamin was arrested at the E T Joshua Airport with 1,038 grams of cocaine last November. When he appeared before the Kingstown Magistrate Court then he pleaded guilty and was fined $50,000 forthwith, with an alternative sentence of two years in prison. After he failed to pay the fine, his prison took effect.
During his appeal hearing, Benjamin’s lawyer, Richard Williams based his argument on the principle of sentencing. He contended that the sentence was harsh and that Benjamin had already spent the equivalent of one prison term since his conviction.
Williams said Benjamin pleaded guilty to the offence at the first opportunity and had thrown himself to the mercy of the court. He said he rose on his behalf (amicus curiae) because of the principle used by the learned magistrate in sentencing him, the allegation and the fact.
Justice Michael Gordon, in reply to counsel’s arguments, said that if a magistrate finds that a fine is the appropriate penalty as opposed to a custodial sentence, but in imposing that fine makes the condition so difficult that the convicted person ends up in prison then “there is an ambiguity in the end”. He added that the matter should be resolved in favour of the convicted person.
“When a magistrate imposes a fine of $50,000 forthwith, clearly the intention is not for the fine to be paid”, Justice Albert Redhead stated.
When it was brought out in the Appeal Court that there was no evidence that inquiries were made to determine Benjamin’s financial position, Justice of Appeal, Brian Alleyne stated, “We are of the view that the failure to make inquiries of his ability to pay the fine is contrary to the principle. He said the offence was a serious one and there was an aggravating feature.
“In our view, a sentence would have been appropriate… In the circumstances, we will allow the appeal”.