Aussie court cuts S'porean duo's jail terms

Judges not convinced bid to sneak A$500k out of Adelaide was likely a repeat offence

A South Australian appeal court has slashed the jail terms of two Singaporeans who tried to sneak out more than A$500,000 (S$514,700) in cash at Adelaide Airport.

Ryan Pereira was sentenced to 11 months' jail, down from the previous 14 months, with release in seven months, while Edward Choi was jailed for eight months, down from 12 months, with release in five months.The jail terms were backdated to Dec 4 last year when both were detained. Their early release is subject to good behaviour bonds.

Both men, aged 34, were jailed in February after pleading guilty to dealing with money of more than A$100,000, where it was reasonable to suspect the cash came from criminal proceeds. The trial judge had given them discounts on their jail termsfor their guilty pleas.

However, the three-judge criminal appeal court found that the trial judge had erred in assuming this was not the first time Pereira had committed such an offence, given that he had visited Adelaide on four previous occasions.

"While the trips were grounds for suspicion, there was no evidence as to what he was doing on these earlier trips," wrote Justice Greg Parker in judgment grounds released on Tuesday. "Because of this process error, Pereira must be resentenced and Choi must be resentenced to maintain parity," he added.

The men were due to leave Adelaide on Dec 4 last year after two days there, but a sniffer dog alerted Australian police to Pereira's suitcase while the men were in the baggage check-in queue at the airport.

His bag contained a T-bone steak and A$270,450 in cash, while Choi's suitcase revealed A$249,450 and a tray of lamb chops.

Pereira, a former Uber driver, denied that the meat was meant to mask the smell of the cash and claimed that the money was won from gambling. Meanwhile, Choi claimed that Pereira had asked him to go along to Australia to help bring the money back. He said that Pereira had paid for the whole trip, including the flights and visa, and paid him $500 for his assistance.

Both dropped the initial claim that the cash came from gambling.

The trial judge had noted that both Pereira and Choi had declined to provide any explanation as to how they came to possess such a large sum of money, and had also declined to explain any surrounding circumstances.

The prosecution had argued at the appeal hearing last month that Pereira's lies and his unwillingness to provide any details about committing the offence entitled the judge to approach his claims with a high degree of scepticism.

But the appeal court held that there was a "process error" when the trial judge concluded she had no reasonable doubt that this was not the first occasion Pereira had engaged in such conduct.

"The making of that finding went beyond what was required to fix the context and also beyond rejecting the plea in mitigation," said Justice Parker. "It therefore leads to the conclusion that Pereira was sentenced on the basis that he had committed offences on the past trips," he added.

The court ruled that Pereira's jail term had to be cut, as the original term "was greater than it might otherwise have been because of her Honour's finding beyond reasonable doubt that he had committed similar offences on his earlier trips to Australia".

Justice Parker added that given that "Choi had a substantially less significant role in their joint criminal enterprise", his jail term had to be adjusted "to maintain parity".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'Aussie court cuts S'porean duo's jail terms'. Print Edition | Subscribe