The five-and-a-half-year jail sentence imposed on an “upper echelon” gang member who was caught red-handed with over €1 million in cash and drugs – including 5kg of cocaine in a potato bag – was too lenient, the State has told the Court of Appeal.
James Curtis (51) with an address at Reiska, Kilcommon, Thurles, Co Tipperary, was jailed at Nenagh Circuit Criminal Court in October 2021.
The court heard that while serving a suspended sentence Mr Curtis was “caught red-handed” in a field near his home in possession of a potato bag containing 5kg of cocaine.
Gardaí discovered €41,000 cash and a further 4.25kg of cocaine in a barrel buried in the field, as well as a plastic Penneys bag containing €336,000, the court heard.
Curtis pleaded guilty to possessing €647,000 worth of cocaine for sale or supply, contrary to Section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. He also pleaded guilty to being in possession of €376,550, knowing or being reckless as to whether or not the money was proceeds of criminal conduct and was jailed for five and a half years.
Detective Sergeant Andrew Lyons told the lower court he believed Mr Curtis to be “in the upper echelon of a criminal fraternity”.
He said gardaí “observed” Mr Curtis leaving his house in Reiska, “under the cover of darkness”, on October 30th, 2020, walking along a “secluded country road” and crossing into a field where he was found in possession of the drugs.
Det Sgt Lyons said Mr Curtis walked at night to the field near a wood, without the aid of a torch, and he wore “latex gloves” to “prevent forensic evidence” being detected on the items found in the field.
On Monday at the Court of Appeal, Tom O’Malley SC, for the State, said the sentencing judge, Judge Cormac Quinn, erred in principle when setting the pre-mitigation headline sentence at eight-and-a-half years.
Mr O’Malley said the headline sentence was “too low”, “unduly lenient” and should not have been less than 10 years’ imprisonment.
Mr O’Malley said the amount of drugs involved was a significant aggravating factor. Counsel added that Mr Curtis’ level of involvement was also “significant, even if he was not at the very top of the enterprise”.
He said that Mr Curtis was already on a suspended sentence for a similar offence he received months earlier from a Limerick court at the time of this offence.
Counsel said that while Mr Curtis had entered a guilty plea “he was caught effectively red-handed” in the field, adding that the defendant had previous convictions for drug-trafficking” and had been “given a clear opportunity” months earlier.
Colman Cody SC, for Mr Curtis, said that while his client was caught “red-handed” the guilty plea was still relevant and was not a “meagre” aspect in mitigation.
Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said that there was no indication that Mr Curtis had been under duress from others to handle the drugs and cash.
Mr Cody said that a person could be trusted by a gang but also in “the grip” of the same gang and that trust can be “imposed” on a person.
Mr Cody said his client’s actions had an impact on his family and son, and said the court should note that Mr Curtis had admitted his crime and was co-operative with gardaí.
Court of Appeal President Mr Justice George Birmingham said the matter would be adjourned to Friday, when it is hoped the court will be in position to give judgement.