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Malta: 15 years in court delays over cannabis possession, court awards €10,000 in damages

House arrest, curfews, seven years before the case started, and another eight to downgrade trafficking charges to possession reports   Malta Today..

If you ever wanted a vignette about the pointlessness of criminalizing cannabis this appears to be it.

Here’s the Report From Malta Today

A Constitutional court has berated prosecutors for a litany of mistakes, as a man subjected to a 15-year ordeal over allegations of drug trafficking, only to be found guilty of just simple possession of cannabis, has been awarded €10,000 in moral damages.

Christopher Mazzitelli was in his early 20s when and had taken up employment at a mechanic’s garage at Qormi, when his promising football career cut short by injuries.

Two sons of the owner of the business frequented the garage, situated beneath the family home. In 2004 the police had been tipped off about criminal activity at the garage, leading to a surveillance operation being put in place by the Drugs Squad. Officers keeping watch on the comings and goings at the garage in April 2004 had taken videos of some individuals, who allegedly had contacted one of the owner’s sons and Mazzitelli, had visited the garage.

Upon leaving the monitored premises, the five persons observed were then stopped and searched by the officers. They were taken in for questioning after drugs were allegedly found in their possession. All five told the police that they had purchased their supplies from the accused who worked at the garage.

Mazzittelli was one of four suspects prosecuted for their alleged involvement in a drug-trafficking conspiracy, as well as for the aggravated possession and trafficking of heroin, cocaine and cannabis resin. One of them was later jailed and one acquitted of drugs charges and handed a suspended sentence for resisting the police.

Whilst admitting under oath that in his youth, he used to smoke cannabis joints, Mazzitelli had insisted that he had “never touched heroin or cocaine” nor had he ever trafficked drugs.

He had been placed under house arrest after spending 20 days in police custody. Mazzitelli ended up spending 163 days under house arrest, with his bail and curfew amendment requests being challenged by the Attorney General, who argued that the man was not trustworthy and that there was a risk of him tampering with evidence.

He had requested the removal of his curfew requirement after spending three years unable to leave his home at night, but this condition was only lifted upon final judgment in January 2019.
Mazzitelli’s appeal application explained how the prosecution had repeatedly informed the court that it “definitively did not have any further evidence” for the issuing of the bill of indictment since 2006, but despite this the proceedings dragged on.

In total 75 sittings were held in the case, five in which the presiding magistrate was indisposed, 31 in which witnesses were heard, 12 where witnesses did not turn up, two where the acts had not been sent to the AG and 11 where the prosecution merely declared that it had no further evidence or indicated a specific witness as its last piece of evidence.

The court noted that another 35 sittings were held in which the prosecution “gave rise to time-wasting”. It therefore took over seven years for the compilation of evidence to be completed.

The bill of indictment was issued in June 2011 – 7 years and 2 months after the start of proceedings – with the Criminal Court ordering the case begin before it in October that year. The entire process before the Criminal Court took another 1 year and 5 months.

A Constitutional reference was made by Mazzitelli’s co-accused, Giovanna Pace, which was decided in her favour in October 2014, with the acts of the case being sent back to the Court of Magistrates in November 2015.

This after, in January 2015, the AG had ordered the case be heard by the Court of Magistrates. After another spell of short sittings, the court ordered the separation of the cases against Mazzitelli and his co accused.

Mazzitelli was finally given the opportunity to testify in February 2017, 14 years after being charged. He admitted under oath that he would occasionally smoke a joint here and there and denied ever being charged in any other drug-related proceedings.

On 15 June 2017, during oral submissions, the prosecution said that it was not treating Mazzitelli as the “kingpin” in the drug operation.

He was finally cleared of all charges bar cannabis possession, for which he was fined €100, in January 2021 – 14 years and 10 months after his initial arrest. No appeals were filed.

He then filed a Constitutional case arguing that his right to justice within a reasonable time had been breached.

Deciding the case in the First Hall of the Civil Court in its constitutional jurisdiction, Mr Justice Toni Abela agreed, laying blame for the inordinate delays at the feet of the Attorney General and the Magistrate presiding the compilation of evidence. “This delay was caused solely by the Attorney General who did not manage the renvoi procedure wisely, with the required attention, commitment and with coordination between him and the police,” said the judge.

“After nearly seven years and two months of dragging his feet and hard-headedly insisting with the police that they present evidence when they had already declared their evidence exhausted several times, he ended up misusing his discretion and instead of sending the articles [of the law under which Mazzitelli was to be prosecuted, to the Court of Magistrates], he issued a Bill of Indictment in which he asked for the punishment of life imprisonment with solitary confinement.”

“At the end of the day… it was up to… the Court of Magistrates as a court of Compilation to ensure that these delays are not permitted. This court was duty bound to prevent the AG from abusing the judicial process.”

The court was particularly incensed at the fact that the Bill of Indictment issued by the AG in 2011 had originally requested the punishment of life imprisonment with solitary confinement to be inflicted, only to rescind this request in 2014.

But it was also the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Criminal Court which contributed to the delays, noted the court, pointing out that the case had spent years in the doldrums there too.

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi and Maryrose Micallef were defence counsel.

Source:  https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/court_and_police/108159/15_years_in_court_delays_over_cannabis_possession_court_awards_10000_in_damages#.YEVSKpMzY0o

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