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Crown loses appeal over sentence for man who coughed at police saying he had Covid

A man who coughed in the faces of police officers while claiming he had the coronavirus was fortunate to escape a serious sentence for the “ugliness”of his actions, a judge has ruled.

Taahir Augustus made the threat to two officers while being arrested in April 2020 – a time early in the pandemic when the virus posed a threat of death.

But because Augustus was not sentenced until July 2022 – when the risk of dying from Covid-19 had dissipated – he was given only a conditional discharge.

Giving her ruling to an appeal against the sentence this week, Puisne Judge Shade Subair Williams condemned Augustus’s actions, adding that a conditional discharge would have sparked “public outrage” had he been sentenced when the pandemic was at its peak.

She said: “I make these findings notwithstanding my real distaste for the ugliness of Mr Augustus’s offensive conduct, which could have proved far more dangerous than it actually was.

“In April 2020, on account of the effects of the global spread of the coronavirus, several hundreds of deaths were being reported in multiple countries worldwide within a 24 hour cycle.

“Tens of thousands of people in neighbouring countries were falling gravely ill, confronted by a real prospect of death.

“Country lockdowns and curfews were in place and millions of people suffered unemployment.

“Simply put, the threat of the virus signified the threat of devastating and life-threatening changes.”

Augustus, 29, from St George’s, was stopped by police on April 13, 2020, on suspicion of impaired driving following a road traffic accident. The island was under lockdown after the first cases of Covid-19 had been recorded a month earlier and five people had already died from the virus.

During an exchange with police, Augustus coughed on two officers and told them he had the coronavirus. Both officers were subsequently placed in quarantine.

But a trial did not take place until July, 2022. Augustus changed his plea to guilty after the Crown closed its case, and was given a conditional discharge by magistrate Maxanne Anderson.

Prosecutors argued in the Supreme Court that the penalty was wrong in law and unduly lenient, noting that now senior magistrate Maxanne Anderson did not give reasons for her sentence.

In her ruling, Mrs Justice Subair Williams said that Ms Anderson’s failure to state whether a conditional discharge would benefit the defendant and was in the public’s interest did constitute a “clear error of law”.

However, she added that it was clear that Augustus – a new father with no previous convictions who insisted that he had acted out of character – would have benefited from the conditional discharge.

She added that, given all of the information the senior magistrate had received, she could not say she acted improperly and would not interfere with Ms Anderson’s decision.

Mrs Justice Subair Williams said: “It is unimaginable that the accused would have been sentenced to a conditional discharge had he been sentenced within the same month of April 2020 when the offences were committed.

“I am left with very little or no doubt that such a sentence would have been met with widespread public outrage, making it unreasonable to conclude that a discharge would not have been contrary to public interest.

“The reality, however, is that the trial and sentence proceedings did not proceed until July 2022 when the public’s interest and fear of the coronavirus had significantly dwindled.

“Does this subtract from the seriousness of the offence committed? It does not. However, it is relevant to the question as to whether it would be contrary to public interest to impose a conditional discharge.”

The full judgment can be read here.