A man, who was forced to serve his entire sentence for drug trafficking before he successfully appealed his conviction due to repeated delays by prison officers in facilitating his legal challenge, is set to receive almost $1 million in compensation.
In a 38-page judgment issued yesterday, High Court Judge Margaret Mohammed ruled that the man’s constitutional right to due process of law was breached by the actions of the errant prison officers.
Mohammed said, “In my opinion the failure of the Prison Service to take positive steps to ensure that there were adequate safeguards to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power by the prison officers, resulted in the claimant being deprived of the opportunity to file his notice of appeal within the prescribed statutory period.”
“As a consequence of the Prison Service’s failure, the claimant’s right to protection of the law was breached by the careless and reckless actions of the prison officers and he was deprived of his liberty without due process,” she added.
According to the evidence in the case, in June 2010, the man, whose lawyers’ requested that he remain unnamed due to security concerns over the windfall, was sentenced to five years in prison after he was convicted of drug trafficking and of attempting to export a prohibited item.
The man made repeated requests to be allowed to communicate with his girlfriend to retain an attorney to pursue his appeal but was denied by prison officers at the Tobago and Port-of-Spain State Prisons.
By the time he was able to complain to a prison superintendent, the deadline for filing his appeal had already elapsed.
He then sought to apply to the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority for legal representation but he was not provided with the official forms used by prisoners and there were repeated delays in dispatching his documents to their intended receivers.
He was eventually released in October 2013 as prison sentences are calculated at three-quarters of a calendar year based on the disciplinary record of a prisoner.
While the man was given legal aid, it took almost two years before his lawyers received records of his failed correspondence, where were needed in order to apply to the Court of Appeal to retroactively extend the time for him to file his appeal.
The application was approved by the Court of Appeal in May 2015 and the court quashed his conviction and sentence in January 2016.
In assessing the compensation, Mohammed awarded him $20,000 for the breach of his constitutional right and $900,000 in damages for the deprivation of his liberty during his three and a half year period of incarceration.
She also granted $60,000 in vindicatory damages, which seeks to highlight the court’s disapproval of the prison officers’ conduct.
“In my opinion, the conduct of the members of the Prison Service save and except Superintendent Morgan was alarming and must be denounced in the strongest manner,” Mohammed said.
“Members of the Prison Service must treat all persons who have been convicted and sentenced with dignity and respect their rights which have been enshrined in the Constitution,” she added.
The man was represented by Farai Hove-Masaisai and Issa Jones of Hove and Associates while Keisha Proper and Laura Persad represented the Office of the Attorney General.