Gino Peck sets a precedent Print E-mail
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Thursday, 06 February 2014 00:00

Corporal Gino Peck, the officer who was charged and convicted of firearm offenses, has escaped jail time, and in the wake of that decision, there is the fear that a vacuum in the Firearms Act now appears to exist.

Peck was convicted in a trial before Chief Magistrate Anne Marie Smith, in a case prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecution, Cheryl-Lynn Vidal on Monday, January 27, 2014. Readers may remember that on January 21, 2012, the Gang Suppression Unit searched his house and found 8 live rounds of .45 ammunition, 29 live rounds of 9mm ammunition, 21 twelve-gauge cartridges, 4 live rounds of .38 ammunition, and 2 empty Glock magazines. Because of the discovery, the GSU charged him with 2 counts of keeping unlicensed ammunition, and 1 count of keeping prohibited ammunition.

He was tried and convicted, which caused outrage amongst the rank and file of the Police Department and the general public. Many believe that he should not have been charged as a civilian because he was exempted under the law, while others say that because of his track record and reputation as a good officer, his version of the events should have been accepted. Peck has never denied having possession of the items; his defence was that he was keeping them for operational purposes, in case the department called for his services on short notice. There were also rumours circulating that Peck supposedly was targeted by Superintendent Marco Vidal, the commander of the GSU, in some personal vendetta for a past grievance.

All of these disagreements about the outcome of the case snowballed into an illegal protest in front of the Chief Magistrate's court on Friday, January 31, the date when Peck was to present a mitigation plea for consideration in his sentence. Outside the court, the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA), members of the public, and off-duty police officers who sympathized with Peck gathered. COLA demonstrated, chanting, "Free Peck Now!", while the officers stood beside them quietly in support.

Inside, retired Reverend Oliver Ottley, a pastor of the King's Park First Church of the Nazarene, Commissioner of the Police Allen Whylie, and Lyndon Giuseppe, the Chairman of Belize Bank, all gave witness testimony for the court to consider that Peck was a good Christian man, a fine officer, and a family man who deserved leniency. After they gave their testimony, Senior Counsel Simeon Sampson asked the court to consider that under the circumstances, if it would consider giving a suspended prison sentence because there was intention to file an appeal, and a constitutional motion to challenge sections of the Firearms Act. Chief Magistrate Smith then suggested that sentence should be passed, and then it would be possible to apply for bail pending the filing of the appeal. DPP Vidal directed the court to Section 54 of the Summary Jurisdiction Procedure Act. This section of the law allows the Magistrate to show discretion to impose a fine if it suits justice in a case, even if there is a mandatory prison sentence. After reviewing the act, the Chief Magistrate passed sentence where she ordered Peck to pay fines to a total of $600, which must be handed over forthwith. That outcome made him the first person since the amendments to the Firearms Act of 2008 and 2010, to escape mandatory jail time.

Those amendments to the act were passed by the Barrow Administration to crack down on violent criminals using firearms to commit murder. Since those amendments, all known convictions for firearm offenses have ended with prison sentences. The fear is that now that the Peck case is over, a precedent has been set, and a loophole has been either created or exposed in the Firearms Act.

Personalities in the legal community suggest that this case has now thought violent criminals how to get out of mandatory jail time if they are ever caught and convicted of gun charges.

DPP Vidal has released a statement to the media saying her office will deal with the matter when the opportunity next presents itself. She said, “There are many views being expressed on whether or not the Section can be invoked in this type of case and I believe that this is an issue that will only be resolved when there are full arguments before a Court. That day, I imagine, will come either at the hearing of Peck's appeal, or if the next person convicted of such an offence prays the Section in aid.”

 That is an issue for another day, but right now, there has been a rift created by the Peck case. The Commissioner of Police and the police high command have supported Peck even though he was convicted. Commissioner Allen Whylie has spoken to the media saying that they will assist Peck fully to try to appeal the criminal charges he’s now convicted of. He said that he believes the matter should have been handled internally with disciplinary charges.

 DPP Vidal has also given her views on that aspect. She said, “I read with great dismay the Release of the Commissioner of Police, backed by the Minister of Police, in which it was suggested that this Office acted improperly in pursuing criminal charges in accordance with its mandate and that this matter could have been dealt with through disciplinary action.”

 She adds, “It appears to us that as far as the High Command of the Police Department is concerned, criminal acts, if committed by police officers, are deserving of less condemnation. This is not the view of the persons charged with the prosecution of crime and we would invite the Commissioner and his officers to rethink that position.”

 Superintendent Marco Vidal also released a statement on Monday, February 3. He said, “The search conducted at the residence of Gino Peck on the 21st of January 2012 was an intelligence-led operation which had been discussed with, and then sanctioned by, the then Commissioner of Police.

 The charges that were laid as a result were also initially sanctioned by that Commissioner. It was only after those charges had been laid that a directive was given to abort the proceedings. By that time the matter was out of our hands.”

 He also addressed the rumours that his unit targeted Peck for personal reasons. His response was, “The suggestion that the case against Peck was motivated by some personal vendetta is preposterous. My interaction with Peck during the course of our careers has been at best, minimal.”

 And while he claims that the then Commissioner of Police, David Henderson, sanctioned the search and the criminal charges, Henderson says that’s not totally true. Henderson, who is now the Head of the National Forensic Science Service, told the media that he knew of the search, but he never signed off on criminal charges. He said that from the first time that it was discussed with him, he indicated that the matter should be dealt with internally. He said that the decision did not come from him, and when the charges were pressed, he did not learn of that until after the fact.

 Gino Peck, the man in the middle of all of this, has already made the decision to press as much as possible to appeal the conviction of the charges. His pension and 22 years of service to the Department is on the line because he may be eligible for disqualification of the benefit because of the conviction. He has, however, thanked everyone who supported him and demonstrated on his behalf.

Last Updated on Thursday, 06 February 2014 14:53