By Aaron Humes Freelance Reporter
Though his career in the Police Department remains on the line, Corporal Gino Peck, 42, has avoided mandatory jail time on two counts of keeping unlicensed ammunition and keeping prohibited ammunition.
Peck, who was fined for the offences, was saved prison time last Friday, when his attorney Simeon Sampson SC presented to Chief Magistrate Ann-Marie Smith a rarely used section of law: Section 54 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Procedure) Act, Chapter 99 of the Laws of Belize.
According to this section of the law, the court may—if a prescribed penalty under any law for any summary conviction imposes imprisonment only and does not allow for payment of a fine—proceed to impose a fine of no more than $250.
In the event of a default on the fine, the law also states that the court should not impose any amount that would cause the convict to serve more prison time than he would have faced under the provision in question.
The use of the law has provided an alternative to the mandatory jail sentence that Peck was facing.,
Ultimately, Smith chose, without further argument, to levy fines of $200 on each count for a total of $600, to be paid forthwith, or in default, 18 months in prison.
Peck paid the fine and by noon walked downstairs into the cheering crowd of supporters, who were waiting for him.
When proceedings began in the standing-room-only No. 1 Magistrate’s Court, Sampson, appearing with Senior Counsel Ellis Arnold, opened by acknowledging that the Chief Magistrate’s hands were tied by the mandatory imposed sentences in the amended Firearms Act.
On each count of keeping unlicensed ammunition, Peck, a first-time offender, faced two to five years in prison, while on the prohibited ammunition charge (not affected by the amended Firearms Act), imprisonment for three to seven years was prescribed, for a minimum of eight years.
Sampson called three witnesses in mitigation: Reverend Doctor Oliver Ottley, a retired pastor of the Nazarene Church; Commissioner of Police Whylie; and Peck’s fellow parishioner and chairman of the Belize Bank Limited, Lyndon Guiseppi.
Rev. Ottley testified to Peck’s being a family man and active in his church, calling him a “man of integrity” who “would not deliberately, if inadvertently, do anything contrary to the law which he represents.”
The Police Commissioner, who knows and worked personally with Peck, praised him as a “quiet, humble person but effective, dedicated and committed police officer,” and added that Peck’s high level of support from inside and outside the Police Department confirmed him as an officer in good standing.
Guiseppi said of Peck that he considered him “a man I would go into battle with; a man I trust.”
In his final plea, Sampson mentioned that there are plans to file a constitutional motion challenging the validity of the mandatory sentences imposed under the amended Act.
He asked for the mandatory minimum sentence to be suspended pending this motion and the outcome of the certain appeal of the conviction. But the Chief Magistrate appeared to deny him, suggesting that he would be better off considering applying for bail for his client.
At this point there was a short adjournment, and after five minutes the Chief Magistrate re-appeared.
Sampson, speaking on behalf of himself and Director of Public Prosecution Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, SC, announced that there was a possible solution, making obvious reference to the rarely used section of the law.
The DPP’s role
The DPP, in a statement issued on Monday, said the section first came to her attention when she questioned the statute allowing fines being issued for sexual offences and had proposed the inclusion of a section nullifying the broader provisions of Section 54 of this Act and Section 164 of the Indictable Procedure Act to keep Magistrate and Judges from imposing fines in lieu of imprisonment.
The Summary Jurisdiction Procedure Act has been amended with Section 53 (B) which says, “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, the penalty of a fine shall not apply to proceedings in relation to offences under this Part.”
Its use in court was the result of what transpired before the adjournment, though she warned her colleagues that without research she could not take a firm decision.
The high-profile nature of the Peck case attracted a relatively large number of people to the court last Friday.
Among those present in the trial were Superintendent Marco Vidal, whose Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) led the raid on Peck’s home, and Police Commissioner Allen Whylie.
Meanwhile, downstairs in front of the Magistrate’s Court, a group of between 100 and 200 vocal supporters of Peck – fellow police officers; activists from Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and associates Fighting in the Streets Together (FIST), were leading the charge to amend or remove the 2008 Firearms (Amendment) Act, and not a few ordinary Belizeans – demanded his release.
The crowd also referred to recent corruption scandals like that in the ImmigraDepartment, where ex-Minister of State Elvin Penner has not spent so much as a day in jail despite being fired by Prime Minister Dean Barrow from the Cabinet.
Despite the official word from senior command not to actively protest, police officers from far and near were silent witnesses to all that transpired, not moving to intervene in what could be seen as an illegal gathering.
At the conclusion of the trial, a still stunned-looking Peck told reporters, “One thing I want to say is that I want to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart; every person who has supported me today, including my department, including every member of my family and my friends.
“I know that when you do honourable things on this earth that it will always be a good end.”
He added that he wished to regroup at home with his family.
His wife Loretta briefly thanked God and their supporters before they were driven away in separate vehicles.
Police Commissioner Whylie told reporters that he will review the matter and decide at a later time how to proceed with Peck’s status in the Department, including possible disciplinary charges, while reaffirming that the Department would assist the family with legal expenses.
Ordinarily, a conviction of a police officer would result in his losing benefits including retirement pension and gratuity accrued to him.
And while that is the official story, the enduring memories of this Friday will be the clash between “people power” and the powers-that-be.
COLA and other supporters of Peck combined for a show of resistance that has not been seen since the Chinese community came out in numbers to the court in 2011.
After the sentencing hearing, COLA President Giovanni Brackett told Reporter that today’s result is testament to the power of the people.
Activist Russell Roberts said he hopes similar cases will be reviewed with reference to Section 54, while his colleague Delroy Herrera supported the decision to challenge the law in court and hopes a similar challenge will be raised in the National Assembly.