Apex court rulings in 3 drug trafficking appeals clarify key issues

Three recent drug trafficking appeal cases, which all led to acquittals before the apex court, have clarified key issues in these laws.

One acquittal saw a top court decision more than two decades old overruled. Another examined knowledge in relation to drug possession, while the third underlined the importance of document disclosure for the accused.

In April, the Court of Appeal acquitted drug courier Saravanan Chandaram of one charge of importing cannabis mixture, while upholding his conviction on a second charge of importing cannabis.

Saravanan's life imprisonment sentence remained unchanged but the court reduced the 24 strokes of the cane imposed on him to 15 strokes.

The reserved judgment by the three-judge court headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon overruled the previous interpretation of "cannabis mixture" in 1996 and held that cannabis mixture meant a mixture of cannabis and another type of plant matter.

The 1996 decision had defined cannabis mixture as a mix of different grades of cannabis, or a mix of different parts of the cannabis plant.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Chambers said that after the Court of Appeal had observed in March 2018 that there may be difficulties relating to the cannabis mixture charge Saravanan faced, the prosecution stopped preferring charges in relation to cannabis mixture in similar cases involving blocks of cannabis-related plant material.

It also withdrew or stood down such charges if they had already been preferred.

In the second case, also in April, the top court acquitted convicted drug trafficker Muhammad Nabill Mohd Fuad on appeal of two capital drug charges and sentenced him to eight years' jail instead for drug possession.

The court, among other things in its decision grounds, ruled the prosecution is under a duty to disclose to the defence the statement of a witness who can be expected to confirm or, conversely, contradict the accused person's defence.

Commenting on the decision on the firm's website, Drew and Napier lawyer Wendell Wong said it "is a potential game-changer for criminal proceedings. It significantly levels the playing field and the information disparity between the prosecution and the defence".

In the same month, a five-judge Court of Appeal allowed Mohammad Azli Mohammad Salleh's appeal against a 2019 conviction on a capital drug trafficking charge in the High Court.

This case had implicated Azli of abetting one Roszaidi Osman in trafficking diamorphine by driving him to collect two packets at Jurong West and then driving Roszaidi to meet Roszaidi's wife to pass her the drugs.

The court in its 55-page judgment said that while it rejected Azli's contention that he had no knowledge at all that controlled drugs were involved, it does not lead to the conclusion that he must therefore have known that the drugs were heroin.

Singapore Management University law professor Chan Wing Cheong said: "The (three) cases show that the courts strive to ensure that the criminal justice system operates fairly and that the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act is carefully scrutinised".

K. C. Vijayan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2020, with the headline 'Apex court rulings in 3 drug trafficking appeals clarify key issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe