Judicial error costs state $200,000

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Henry (not his real name) says he has been falsely accused of crimes for much of his adult life.

But a judicial error which landed him behind bars cost the state $200,000.

Henry, 65, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Sunday Newsday his most recent problems with the justice system began in March 2005.

He said he was at the home of his cousin in Diego Martin, where he had been staying for several months, when the police showed up with a search warrant with his name on it.

“About three, four car loads of police come with a warrant saying they come to search for guns and ammunition. They searched and found about $25,000 – because my cousin is a fisherman – and a quantity of jewels. We explained the (source of the) money, and the person in charge said we shouldn’t keep all that money in the house.

“The next night, four police come – no warrant, nothing – calling out my name. I open the door and it was gun in my face and all kinda thing. They push me aside and then put my cousin in one bedroom and me in another.”

Henry said they “searched” and found “the pillowcase with the money and jewellery,” and told him to throw the contents out on the bed. They took him back into the living room and one officer held up a matchbox and said, “Look, we find it here,” and they were arrested.

The self-employed businessman saw an officer leaving the house with a bag containing his four gold bera bracelets, a gold-coloured handbag, and a gold chain, all worth $60,000, and the money.

“As we were driving off we heard someone on the radio asking, ‘Where allyuh is, boy?’ and they say, ‘Take your time, nah. We coming now.’”

Around 2 am, they were taken to the West End Police Station and immediately put in the station’s cell.

“I not stupid. I knew it was a set-up. I done realise it’s a robbery. If I have nothing illegal in the house, what it had to find?

“Is about five conviction I have, and three or four of them is false convictions. I done know how it is with the police and them.

“But I was stupid, because the night the police come and see the money, I was supposed to move it. They catch me with my pants down.”

It was only later that day Henry learned there was allegedly cocaine in the matchbox. Both men were charged with possession of cocaine and remanded to jail for three weeks.

He recalled asking for the money and jewellery through his lawyer at the time, but the officer at the desk said they did not know anything about them.

Shalini Sankar says the judicial system can be unjust to the “sall man”. –

He said he was not afraid but was resigned to the situation as, only the year before, he had been released after 40 months in prison for trafficking marijuana.

When they finally got bail, he filed a complaint to the Police Complaints Authority and, after an investigation, the four officers were demoted. But neither the money nor jewellery was ever returned.

By the time his case was completed two years later, the case against his cousin was dismissed. But, in October 2007, Henry was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour by magistrate Andrew Stroude, now a member of the Industrial Court.

He was immediately sent to prison, but filed an appeal. He spent three weeks in remand before being released on bail.

During the ten years Henry was out on bail he claimed the police continued to harass him.

By this time he had moved out of his cousin’s home. He recalled one time when the police told him they heard he had drugs, searched his home, took $5,000 and charged him for cultivation of marijuana. But the case was thrown out because the arresting officer did not appear in court.

Henry’s appeal was heard in April 2017 and the magistrate’s order was set aside.

In his lawsuit for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment, he said, “The learned justices of appeal found that the magistrate did not deal with the prosecution’s case and that the claimant was convicted not on the prosecution proving their case but on the basis that the magistrate disbelieved the claimant and that the conviction should not stand.”

Henry said, at the time, he did not know his appeal had been allowed. He was not notified, as his lawyer had died by that time.

Then, 14 days later, Stroude issued a warrant of committal saying Henry’s appeal had been dismissed and he should be arrested to serve his 12-month sentence.

He was arrested on December 11, 2017 and taken to the Port of Spain Prison the next day.

“From there the dirtiness start in the jail. Five people in a small six-by-eight cell, men sleeping on a board on the ground, you had to use writing paper to wipe after you ease your bowels, urinate in a bottle and throw everything in a bucket outside the cell.

“Then you eating near the waste, the ration room and cooking station right there, everything right in one. You dusting off cockroaches and flies, moving aside for rats – and the smell was disgusting. I couldn’t eat anything. It real unsanitary.

“I told my cousin to get me a lawyer as soon as possible.”

Attorney Shalini Sankar told Sunday Newsday she was alerted to Henry’s case by his cousin. Sankar recalled walking to court when a stranger stopped her in the road and asked for help for her cousin, saying he was not supposed to be in jail.

“I told the lady to come with me, let’s go in court and check it out. When I was finished with my matter, I took her straight to the Court of Appeal and applied to get his case notes from the registry.”

When she scanned the documents she realised Henry should not be in prison and immediately called the Commissioner of Prisons to alert his legal team and organise Henry’s release. She got him released on December 15, 2017.

She and instructing attorney Risa Rajnath later learned the charging officer had appeared in the Court of Appeal. He told the magistrates court Henry’s matter had been thrown out, which caused the warrant to be signed off.

“But, at the end of the day, the information would have come directly from the Court of Appeal. The magistrate had a duty to check what was going on and not act irresponsibly like that.

“Ms Rajnath and I decided we would take up the matter, even though he had no income, because it was such a shocking case to us, the malicious prosecution against him.

“And it’s so crazy that the magistrate in the magistrates court was the same one who issued the warrant to send him to jail ten years later, after the Court of Appeal said he was not guilty.”

Between April 2018 and October 2019, Sankar and Rajnath sent pre-action protocol letters to the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police and finally, Stroude.

Sankar said initially, they did not want to include the judge, but the AG’s office told them if the court gave the police a warrant, they had to execute it.

“We filed one action without the judge, because, for over a year, we were in communication with the lawyers working on a settlement proposal. The next thing we saw, in April 2020, was a Miscellaneous Bill coming to Parliament saying magistrates cannot be charged for gross negligence.

“This is in the time period when we were waiting for settlement. So we decided to go to court and sue the magistrate one time too as an emergency action.”

Eventually, on October 2 this year, they settled out of court for $200,000. The order was approved by Justice Betsy Ann Lambert-Peterson on October 4.

“He has been waiting a very long time to get some kind of relief in this matter. It shows some of the things wrong with our judicial system and how things could go wrong for the small man. It’s worrying to think of all the innocent people in jail, those who get set up or who don’t have access to lawyers, and they don’t know what they can do.”

Henry said for all he went through – spending bail money, wasting his time, the money and jewellery the police took – he should have got more money.

“In my life I already went through plenty for nothing. This was just a small part of what I went through. Even after everything was settled, the police come and ask why I outside and wanted to rearrest me. And now that I sue them, they go have me in mind.

“But it doesn’t matter. God in control. I can’t worry. I could plan, but God is the best planner. I will go with what He plans.”