A taxi driver jailed and fined over drug-related charges four years ago, had his punishment reduced on appeal on Wednesday owing to delays in the judicial process not attributable to him, the principle of proportionality and in line with recent legislative views on drug offences.

Kurt Buttigieg, 37, was arrested in November 2011 in Sta Venera after a suspect, well-known to members of the Drug Squad, boarded his taxi, getting off again only a short distance away.

A search of the passenger had yielded negative results. The taxi driver was also searched and a sachet containing a suspicious powder, together with €610 in cash were found inside his underpants.

The powder was later certified as being 0.5 grams of cocaine having a purity of 28%.

Some one and a half metres away from his vehicle, the police came across a bag containing 13 other drug-filled sachets, similar to those found in the man’s possession. A search at the man’s residence had yielded a number of bags, corners snipped off.

Criminal action was instituted and Mr Buttigieg was ultimately found guilty in 2014 of cocaine possession under circumstances denoting that it was not for his personal use. He was also found guilty of being a recidivist.

The Magistrates’ Court condemned him to a jail term of four years and a €5,000 fine, besides ordering him to pay €2,365.12 by way of court expert expenses. The €610 in cash and the accused’s mobile were confiscated, while the court ordered the destruction of the drugs.

Various arguments were raised by the defence upon appeal, including the fact that no fingerprint on the bag found along the roadside could be matched to those of the accused and that he had allegedly been unwell when interrogated by the police.

Moreover, it was argued that the aggravating factor, that the offences had occurred within the prescribed distance from a school, club or other place frequented by youths, had been wrongly applied since it had been the police who had stopped the accused at that spot.

The court of appeal, presided over by Mr Justice Giovanni Grixti, whilst confirming the conviction, concluded that a reduction of punishment was merited on the basis of the principle of proportionality as well as in the light of views expressed by the legislator in recent amendments to drugs laws.

Furthermore, the court observed that final judgment was being delivered seven years after the arraignment, a delay attributable to no fault on the part of the accused.

The court thereby reduced the prison term to one year nine months and also applied a lesser fine of €3,000. The payment of expenses and destruction of the drugs were confirmed.

Lawyer David Gatt was defence counsel.

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