Top court allows drug trafficker's appeal, cuts jail time

It rules that a person cannot be defined as a trafficker if he returns drugs to 'bailor'

The Court of Appeal has ruled that a person cannot be defined as a trafficker if he returns drugs to the person from whom he received them.

"Such a person cannot, without more, be liable for trafficking because the act of returning the drugs is not part of the process of supply or distribution of drugs," said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in judgment grounds yesterday.

The court, which included Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang, accepted that in the vast majority of cases, it could reasonably be assumed that drugs were moved from one person to another along the supply chain for ultimate consumers.

"It is clear, however, that this assumption does not hold true in the case of a person who merely holds the drug as 'bailee' with a view to returning them to the 'bailor' who entrusted him with the drugs in the first place," said the court.

The ruling came when the court allowed the appeal of Ramesh Perumal, who is now 41, against his conviction and sentence for possession of 29.96g of heroin for the purpose of trafficking. He was convicted on an amended charge of drug possession and jailed for 10 years, in lieu of the original sentence of life imprisonment plus 15 strokes of the cane.

In 2017, Perumal was jointly tried with a then 40-year-old man, Chander Kumar Jayagaran, on charges related to nine bundles of heroin which were brought into Singapore from Malaysia. The drugs were in a lorry driven by Jayagaran, and Perumal was a passenger in the vehicle.

At some point in the July 2013 incident, Jayagaran gave Perumal a bag containing the bundles which the latter carried with him to a parked second lorry in Woodlands and drove off. He was nabbed about 30 minutes later.

Both men were convicted in the High Court for trafficking. Jayagaran was sentenced to life imprisonment and 24 strokes on three charges, while Perumal was found guilty on one charge. Both men filed appeals and were unrepresented when they were heard in August last year.

The court, for various reasons, found that the element of knowledge of the nature of the drugs had not been made out against Perumal beyond reasonable doubt.

It highlighted the fact that Perumal agreeing to receiving the drug bundles from Jayagaran did not mean, without more, that he must have agreed to deliver the drugs.

Ramesh Perumal was convicted on an amended charge of drug possession and jailed for 10 years, in lieu of the original sentence of life imprisonment plus 15 strokes of the cane.

One reasonable possibility was that Perumal had possession of the drugs for safekeeping, intending to return the bundles to Jayagaran, said the court.

At issue was whether an accused who took custody of the drugs trafficked in such drugs if he intended to, and in fact, returned them to the person who entrusted him with the drugs, it added.

"We are satisfied that this question should be answered in the negative," the court ruled, departing from three previous court decisions "to the extent that it is necessary to do so".

The court dismissed Jayagaran's appeal in its judgment grounds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'Top court allows drug trafficker's appeal, cuts jail time'. Print Edition | Subscribe