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Major drugs cases: some important sentencing principles

There is additional credit available to defendants who plead guilty first by 'breaking ranks' in complex and multi-defendant cases. This is perhaps the most important principle to be derived from the Court of Appeal decision in Sanghera, Atkar, Brown and O'Meara [2016] EWCA 94. The Court was reviewing sentences imposed following pleas of guilty  at different times to conspiring to import and supply cocaine. It is not really necessary to revise the facts of the case in any particular detail. Sanghera and Atkar (in that order) were the organisers of a criminal conspiracy involving the importation of cocaine amounting  to approximately 40kg from Mexico, using corrupt employees at Heathrow and couriers to aid distribution. Additionally, Sanghera had imported live ammunition. He was given a total sentence of 30 years having pleaded guilty a month or so after PCMH (now PTPH). Atkar, who pleaded guilty at PCMH was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment. Brown and O'Meara, who had lesser roles, also pleaded guilty a month or so after PCMH, and were sentenced 13 years each. All of the sentences were eventually reduced (to 26, 19, 11 and 11 respectively) but it is worth us looking at the analysis to derive clear principle so as to determine how credit applies (and how important it is) in cases such as these.

Sentencing practice is derived from sentencing guidelines which for most offences provide starting points and ranges dependent on categories indicating seriousness and culpability. For Class A drug trafficking offences, the sentencing guidelines for category 1 culpability A offences (the most serious) envisage a starting point of 14 years and a range of 12-16 but this only applies to heroin and cocaine up to 5kg. So in this case, and in other serious cases where quantities exceed this amount, much higher sentences are imposed and this appeal was really concerned with these types of cases. The following principles can be extracted from the judgment:

- additional (or particular) credit is available to those who break ranks and plead guilty first triggering further guilty pleas and the cracking of any fixed trial;

- sentences of more than 30 years would be wholly exceptional and reserved only for prime movers in the importation of 2000-3000kg of a Class A drug;

- generally therefore there is a ceiling of 30 years as a starting point for any offender who does not fall into the above category;

- defendants who plead guilty even shortly after PTPH can only really expect a maximum of 20% credit

- sentencing judges ought to specify how they have applied credit for guilty pleas.


Credit for pleading guilty is rarely more important than in cases such as this where very long sentences of imprisonment can be reduced markedly by discounts which amount to a reduction which can be counted in years. Take the position of Atkar, for example, whose 24 year starting point was reduced by 5 years to 19 even after a plea of guilty following PCMH. In real terms that means actually serving 9.5 as opposed to 12. Had he pleaded guilty at an earlier juncture he may have received maximum credit amounting to possibly 8 years (serving 8 as opposed to 12) highlighting just how important it is to make an early assessment of the strength of evidence in such cases.


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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.