Case Summaries

Adili Chibuike Ejike v Public Prosecutor [2019] SGCA 38 Criminal Appeal No 18 of 2017

 

SUPREME COURT OF SINGAPORE

27 May 2019

 

Case summary

 

Adili Chibuike Ejike v Public Prosecutor [2019] SGCA 38 Criminal Appeal No 18 of 2017

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Decision of the Court of Appeal (delivered by Sundaresh Menon CJ):

 

Outcome: CoA allows accused’s appeal against conviction and acquits accused of capital charge of importation of methamphetamine.

 

Background

 

1          The appellant, Adili Chibuike Ejike, was convicted in the High Court of importing not less than 1,961g of methamphetamine into Singapore, and was sentenced to death. He appealed against his conviction and the sentence imposed.

 

The material facts

 

2          The appellant, a Nigerian national, had travelled to Singapore from Nigeria. At Customs, his luggage, a small suitcase, was put through an X-ray machine and an image of darker density was observed on one side of the case. When nothing incriminating was found after a physical search, the case was brought to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority Baggage Office for further inspection. The inner lining of one side of the bag was first cut and a bundle wrapped in brown masking tape was found inside. The inner lining of the other side was then cut, revealing another bundle wrapped in brown tape. The two bundles were later found to contain the methamphetamine which formed the subject matter of the charge brought against the appellant.

 

3          Prior to coming to Singapore, the appellant had been unemployed in Nigeria following the failure of his business. The appellant claimed that an acquaintance in Nigeria had agreed to give him some financial assistance if he delivered the suitcase together with some money to an unspecified person in Singapore. He maintained at all times that he did not know that the bundles of methamphetamine were in the suitcase.

 

4          At the trial, Defence counsel conceded the issue of possession and admitted that the appellant had been in possession of the case containing the bundles of methamphetamine, and that he was therefore presumed to be in possession of the methamphetamine pursuant to s 18(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act (Cap 185, 2008 Rev Ed) (“the MDA”). The appellant’s defence rested instead on the issue of knowledge of the nature of the drug: Defence counsel argued that the appellant did not know that the bundles contained methamphetamine. The trial therefore focused on whether the appellant had been able to rebut the presumption of knowledge under s 18(2) of the MDA.

 

5          The trial judge (“the Judge”) rejected the appellant’s evidence on knowledge. He found the appellant to be an unreliable witness in the light of several inconsistencies between the appellant’s oral testimony and his investigation statements regarding, amongst other things, what the appellant knew about the contents of the suitcase. Having rejected the appellant’s defence, the Judge convicted the appellant. As the Public Prosecutor did not issue a Certificate of Substantive Assistance, the alternative sentencing regime under s 33B of the MDA was not applicable to the appellant. Accordingly, the Judge sentenced him to the mandatory death penalty.

 

The court’s decision

 

6          The Court of Appeal allowed the appellant’s appeal against conviction and acquitted him of the charge.

 

7          The Court set out the three cumulative elements that must be proved in respect of the offence of importation under s 7 of the MDA: First, the accused person must have been in possession of the drugs. Second, the accused person must have had knowledge of the nature of the drugs. Third, the drugs must have been intentionally brought into Singapore without prior authorisation (at [27]).

 

8          The Court considered that the central issue before it was whether the appellant was in possession of the methamphetamine. Although the parties had, at the trial below, proceeded on the basis that the appellant was presumed to be in possession of the drugs by virtue of s 18(1) of the MDA, the Court doubted the correctness of that approach as the appellant’s contention that he did not even know that the drug bundles were hidden in the case was one that went not to whether he knew the nature of the drugs, but to whether he had even possessed those drugs in the first place. This was because the element of possession required not just proof of physical possession or custody but also incorporated an element of knowledge (at [28] and [31]). A person who did not even know that the thing which turned out to be a controlled drug was in his possession could not be said, in a legal sense, to be in possession of that thing. In this regard, what was required was that the accused person must have known of the existence, within his possession, custody or control, of the thing which later turned out to be a controlled drug; in this specific context, he need not have known that the thing was a controlled drug. Knowledge of the specific nature of the drug was a separate element of the offence (at [32]).

 

9          The Court observed that “knowledge” comprised both actual knowledge and wilful blindness (which was the legal equivalent of actual knowledge) (at [41]). The Court further noted that the term “wilful blindness”, when correctly used, described a mental state which fell short of actual knowledge. On this view, an accused person who did not in fact know the true position but sufficiently suspected what it was and deliberately refused to investigate in order to avoid confirmation of his own suspicions should, in certain circumstances, be treated as though he did know. The Court held that, moving forward, the term “wilful blindness” should only be used in this extended sense (meaning a mental state which fell short of actual knowledge). It should not be used in the evidential sense, whereby the accused person’s suspicions and deliberate refusal to inquire constituted evidence which, together with all the other relevant evidence, might sustain a factual finding or inference that he actually knew that which he was accused of knowing (at [45], [47] and [50]).

 

10        The Court laid down three requirements that must be satisfied before a finding of wilful blindness could be made. First, the accused person must have had a clear, grounded and targeted suspicion of the fact to which he is said to have been wilfully blind. Second, there must have been reasonable means of inquiry available to the accused person, which, if taken, would have led him to discovery of the truth. Third, the accused person must have deliberately refused to pursue the reasonable means of inquiry available so as to avoid such negative legal consequences as might arise in connection with his knowing that fact (at [51]). The Court further observed that the test for wilful blindness might vary where the specific fact to which the accused person was said to be wilfully blind was knowledge of the nature of the drug, as opposed to knowledge of the existence of the thing which turned out to be the drug (at [52] and [62]).

 

11        The Court observed that knowledge could either be proved or presumed. Where the Prosecution sought to prove knowledge of a particular fact, it must prove beyond reasonable doubt either that the accused person actually knew that fact, or that the accused person had been wilfully blind to it. However, where the Prosecution sought to rely on the s 18(1) presumption to establish possession, the doctrine of wilful blindness had no application. The Prosecution could not rely on the s 18(1) presumption to prove that the accused person was wilfully blind to the presence of the drugs in his possession, custody or control; neither was wilful blindness relevant in analysing whether the presumption had been rebutted. When the Prosecution invoked the s 18(1) presumption, the onus shifted to the accused person to rebut the presumption by showing that he did not actually know that the drugs were in his possession, for example, by persuading the court that the drugs were slipped into his bag without his knowledge (at [70] and [71]).

 

12        The Prosecution could not invoke the s 18(1) presumption to presume that the appellant actually knew of the existence of the drug bundles when its case, both below and on appeal, was that the appellant did not actually know. The Prosecution’s case was that the appellant had been wilfully blind to the existence of the drugs in the suitcase, and this was crucial because, as the Prosecution itself explained, this implicitly entailed that the appellant did not actually know of the existence of those drugs. It was therefore not open to the Prosecution to invoke a presumption as to the existence of a fact which it had accepted did not exist (at [74], [80] and [81]).

 

13        The Court further held that the appellant had not been wilfully blind to the existence of the drug bundles in the suitcase. This was because it would not have been possible for the appellant to have discovered the drug bundles even if he had made the requisite inquiries. The Court was satisfied that even if the appellant had opened and checked the contents of the suitcase, he would not have been able to discover the drug bundles, which were only found after the inner lining of the suitcase was cut open. Nor could the appellant have found out about the drugs by asking the persons who had handed him the suitcase in Nigeria since it was apparent that they were intent on keeping the truth of the matter from him, and would not have told him about the hidden drug bundles even if he had asked (at [84] to [87]).

 

14        For these reasons, the Court held that the Prosecution had failed to establish a key element of the offence of importation, namely, that the appellant knew that the drug bundles in the suitcase were in his possession. Accordingly, the Court allowed the appeal against conviction and acquitted the appellant of the charge against him (at [103] and [104]).

 

This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court. All numbers in bold font and square brackets refer to the corresponding paragraph numbers in the Court’s judgment.

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