A Jersey jeweller sentenced to seven-and-a-half years behind bars for laundering money for a criminal gang involved in a £1m drug smuggling plot is aiming to single-handedly overturn his conviction.
Darius Pearce (49) was sentenced before the Royal Court in July 2021 for cleaning dirty money on behalf of an enterprise that tried to smuggle £919,000-worth of cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis into Jersey in June 2019.
The audacious plot - which involved landing the drugs from a yacht sailed over from the UK - was described as the most complex drug-related and money laundering investigation ever undertaken by the Jersey authorities.
Seven of the gang members caught by ‘Operation Lion’ were sentenced by the Royal Court in September 2020, after they had pleaded guilty to various offences.
Mr Pearce was alleged to have used his business to receive criminal cash and buy gold bullion. He was the only suspect in Jersey to maintain his innocence - however, he was found guilty of three charges of money laundering after a six-day trial in December 2020.
Yesterday, Pearce - who chose not to be represented by a lawyer - appealed his conviction and asked for permission to appeal his sentence.
Pictured: Members of the drugs ring Pearce had been associated with, were jailed in September 2020.
Appearing in the Court of Appeal before the Bailiff Tim Le Cocq, James McNeill QC and Lord Anderson of Ipswich, Pearce said there was no case to answer on the charge of money laundering.
His submission involved highlighting the "highly technical argument" given by the judge in summing up his case at the time, as well as challenging the description of the offence he was charged with.
He said the “acquisition, use, possession and control of criminal property” had already happened before he got involved.
The Bailiff argued that, if the money was in Jersey cash, it couldn’t be used elsewhere and that converting it into gold bullion, as Pearce had done, and then releasing it in the UK would make its use easier - a view Pearce disagreed with.
He said the other criminals had retained control of the money throughout the whole process.
“As a businessman, every day people will drop items to me,” he said. “While I hold that property, it’s not in my possession, I do not have control of it… I am only holding it for purpose stated.”
Pictured: Pearce denied having facilitated the use of the money from the criminal enterprise.
Mr McNeill interjected, saying: “You do have possession, control and have the ability to use the items for a number of purposes. If you receive something in trust it becomes your possession, although not private.”
Pearce argued he hadn’t facilitated the use of criminal cash for someone who didn’t already enjoy the use of the money before, and that he had transferred it to the same people.
“Otherwise it means that, if someone gives me criminal property to examine for the purpose of purchase and I gave it back to him, it would mean I have breached the law by transferring criminal property from one person to the other…I don’t think that is what the law says,” he said.
Crown Advocate Matthew Maletroit told the Court that the prosecution’s case was that Pearce had facilitated the outcome covered by the provision of the law through various actions that involved “receiving money, paying that into banking system, using money to purchase gold bullion, making arrangements for its collection and then handing it over or the cash/sale proceeds of bullion”.
He said the Jurats could infer the existence of an arrangement between the gang members and Pearce by their presence in the shop. “Why else would someone go into the shop handing something over and leave?” he said. “There must have been a mutual understanding.”
He argued the Commissioner’s lengthy legal directions had been “correct and meticulous”.
Pictured: Pearce said he had lost his right to choose his lawyer because he had to use legal aid.
Pearce said he had been denied legal assistance during the proceedings as a result of what he described as the “unlawful actions” of the police. Pearce said he had never given the police permission to access the bank account for its company, Jersey Online Traders Limited.
However, he said the police had accessed it anyway, leading the account to be frozen which meant he wasn’t able to pay for an advocate.
Lord Anderson noted that Pearce had previously made a similar submission to a Royal Court Commissioner, who had indicated Pearce didn’t want any lawyer at the trial, as he didn’t want the benefit of the legal costs to go to a lawyer.
Pearce acknowledged he had been given a legal representative through Legal Aid but said it meant he had lost his right to choose.
“In my emotional distress, I was not able to trust a lawyer,” Pearce said. “I asked for assistance, and I was denied assistance, and it is assistance I needed to achieve a fair hearing.”
The Crown Advocate said the theme of legal representation had come up “time and time again” in the hearings leading to Pearce’s trial.
He argued that Pearce had chosen not to have a lawyer at his trial and that the Court and Crown had made “considerable efforts” to ensure he was represented if that was his wish.
He said Pearce’s refusal to provide details of his financial means for his legal aid had caused issues. He also said that when Pearce stopped working with his first lawyer, a new certificate was issued for another lawyer almost the same day.
“The appellant declined representation,” the Crown Advocate said. “He made it clear he didn’t wish to be represented.”
He added that the Court had considered it wouldn’t be appropriate for an amicus curiae to be appointed simply for Pearce to “collect his thoughts”.
The Crown Advocate also said the Crown had taken the “unusual step” of going through the admission of facts one by one in court and asking Pearce about his views, adding that there had been a number of pre-trial hearings during which Pearce had participated in discussions and made very clear submissions on what he agreed and didn’t agree with.
He also noted how Pearce had been provided with the Crown’s conclusions earlier than normal, so that he could prepare for the sentencing hearing.
The Crown Advocate also told Court that Pearce’s accounts only held £9,000 at the time Pearce referred to, describing the amount as “insufficient in securing the legal representation he needed”.
Pictured: Pearce said his prison sentence was “manifestly excessive”.
Pearce also argued that the sentence he had received had been “manifestly excessive”.
He said the Crown had “speculated” over the impact of his involvement, arguing the gang would have been able to buy the imported drugs without the money he laundered.
He said he had not been involved in the drug trade and there was no evidence to show he knew anything about what was going on. He argued that rather than aggravating factors he had mitigating factors, as the offence took place in his place of work and related to the “normal course of his business”.
He concluded he should have been sentenced to less than a year in prison, and that a non-custodial sentence would have been preferred to jailing him.
“All I was doing was collecting gold and bringing it back to Jersey,” Pearce said. “I was selling gold, which is something my family has done for 100 years…if someone exploits the fact I do that, the criminality is not mine.”
The Crown said Pearce’s role was far more extensive than other defendants as he had “received a sum of cash, paid it in, used the money to buy bullion and was involved in its conversion back into cash in the UK and did so whilst in communication with members of the enterprise. “He was involved in every stage of money laundering,” he said.
Advocate Jeremy Garrood, who acted as amicus curiae for the hearing, said Pearce had done well in setting out his arguments.
The Court of Appeal has reserved its judgment and should be presenting its conclusions later this week.
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