Our client was arrested in December 2015, being the only person present in a property in Llanelli largely given over to the production of over 100 cannabis plants. He spoke no English at all, had no passport, and only a small amount of money, and apparently never went out of the house.
He was interviewed by the police and with the assistance of an interpreter he explained his circumstances which were that he had paid $20,000 to people in Vietnam who had arranged his passage into the UK over many months and through various countries, often concealed in vehicles with other illegal immigrants. When he eventually arrived he did not know what country he was in, but he was taken to a house where he was told to look after many plants which were growing under lights, and he was given food and £50 a week, and threatened that he would be beaten up if he left the house, or if any plants died.
He was charged with being concerned in the production of cannabis. He was referred to the Home Office department which deals with people who have potentially been trafficked into the UK. He was remanded in custody to await trial, and after considerable delay the case came before the crown court in May 2016. The prosecution wished to add a count of abstraction of electricity, but the court did not allow the application.
Although the burden of proof in a criminal case lies with the prosecution, in this case there was also a burden of proof on him to show that he did not know the plants were cannabis (or illegal), or suspect the plants were cannabis, and that he did not have reason to suspect the plants were cannabis. This was a very high standard to prove and made more difficult by the language barrier which made taking instructions and explaining the law and the court system to him particularly difficult. We were greatly helped by an excellent interpreter, and eventually our client made an informed decision to plead guilty on a limited basis, namely that he did suspect that the flowers that he had been told were medicinal herbs were indeed illegal.
Counsel drafted a detailed basis of plea to assist the court in sentencing as there was no pre sentence report, and the client would immediately be subject to immigration control on his release. The document summarised his situation as a man of clean character who had gone into debt to reach the UK for economic reasons. He had on arrival been subject to threats and coercion.
According to the drug offences sentencing guidelines counsel suggested that this defendant should be placed in a lesser role as he had – performed a limited function under direction, -he was engaged by coercion, – he was exploited, and – he had little awareness of the scale of the operation.
The court gave the defendant some credit for his guilty plea, albeit that it was at the last minute. This is unusual but the court felt that the defendant had been severely prejudiced by his language difficulties in understanding the nature of the case against him. He received a 10 month sentence which would have enabled his immediate release, however because he was subject to immigration control he would be removed to a detention centre pending deportation to his country of origin.
The court were sympathetic to the defendant’s situation as a person who had been trafficked, and even declined to confiscate the small amount of wages that he had received for looking after the cannabis plants.