Appeal Court blanks CoP’s request to fast track gun dealer’s case

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher –

AN Appeal Court judge has dismissed an application by the Police Commissioner to expedite an appeal challenging a judge’s order for Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher to decide on firearm dealer Towfeek Ali’s applications for firearms import permits.

On Thursday, Justice of Appeal Maria Wilson dismissed the commissioner’s application and ordered her to pay Ali’s costs fit for senior and junior counsel.

In November, Justice Kevin Ramcharan made the order and also declared that her continuing failure to decide on Ali’s 2022 applications to import ammunition was unlawful, based on unreasonable and inordinate delay.

In his lawsuit, Ali, who runs the Firearms Training Institute (FTI), in Chaguanas, maintained that in the past, his dealership had imported millions of rounds of ammunition of various calibres and thousands of firearms. He also holds weapon training courses for licensed firearm users.

The lawsuit said the commissioner decided to halt the processing of applications for import permits by all firearm dealers to ensure all weapons and ammunition previously imported were accounted for, her defence said.

Her decision was further based on allegations of corruption between October 2020 and August 2021; information from the Stanley John report of a “thriving well-oiled, the white-collar criminal enterprise being conducted under the nose of the Commissioner of Police;” results from the 2022 audit of the police service’s firearms unit; an absence of data from dealers; the importation of large quantities of ammunition – some 57.2 million rounds in 2020; irregularities in the importation; information that 100 licensed firearms had been used in crimes and 30, which were imported by dealers, found in the possession of people who did not have licences, as well there being civilians permitted to carry multiple firearms and have large amounts of ammunition.

In his ruling, Ramcharan said the Firearms Act did not confer any right to lawfully possess and import firearms, ammunition and other related items, so the commissioner was not obliged to grant a licence to a dealer because they were in the business of selling firearms and ammunition.

“It is the court’s view that the defendant is entitled to consider the wider state of the ‘industry,’ the state of firearm-related crimes in TT, and whether the claimants comply with the requirements under the act.

“The court, therefore, holds that the defendant was entitled to ‘pause’ the grant of licences as she did.”

However, on the question of delay, he was of the view that it was not appropriate for a decision-maker to put off making a decision indefinitely without any indication as to when it might be made.

“The court notes that since the commencement of the exercise, many of the issues have begun to resolve themselves and it appears from the evidence that the defendant is in a better position now of understanding where firearms and ammunition issued by licensed dealers are located.

“It is, therefore, not plausible for the defendant to state that it is not possible to give an indication as to when applications may be determined.”

He said he understood that in the beginning, it may have been that the commissioner could not give a realistic estimate of the time it would take to complete the exercise, but now, “it cannot be that the defendant cannot give an estimate based on how the work has progressed as to when a decision can be made…

“Communication with applicants as to the reason for the delay in the applications for licences would, in the court’s view, be appropriate in light of the exercise and the lengthy delay it would no doubt cause.”

According to the judgment, Ali and his dealership sought to import over 3.6 million rounds of ammunition for resale purposes, of which 820,000 rounds are 12 and 16-gauge cartridges for hunting purposes, and which include 60,000 rounds of high-powered military-grade ammunition.

The firearms audit has been ongoing since June 2023.

In the application to have the appeal heard urgently, the commissioner argued the judge disregarded established authority and applied the wrong test.

The commissioner also argued that the judge failed to look at the context, the circumstances of the case, her constitutional responsibilities and the “pragmatic realities of the developing society in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The application said an urgent hearing was necessary to resolve the divergence and uncertainty in the case law created by Ramcharan’s judgement and to provide clarity on the approach to be adopted when judicially reviewing the decision of any public authority.

It also said 37 cases were pending against the commissioner in the High Court on the ground of unreasonable delay, including 17 under the Firearms Act, and a resolution of this appeal would affect those matters and future lawsuits.

“Without an expedited hearing, there would be serious detriment to good public administration and the interests of third parties not concerned in the instant appeal.

“The issue in the appeal is one of public importance and involves not only the appellant and the respondents but has far-reaching impacts for public authorities, including a multiplicity of claims where decision-makers have not given an estimate of when they will make a decision.”

In her ruling, Wilson said Ramcharan properly evaluated the evidence and applied the necessary principles of law when arriving at his decision.

Newsday understands after Ramcharan’s ruling, the commissioner decided on Ali’s applications, granting some when refusing others.

The commissioner was represented by attorneys Russell Martineau, SC, Tamara Toolsie and Avaria Niles.