Vilma Wachter has been sentenced to serve six months in prison after her original sentence was overturned on appeal from Crown Law last week.
The 54 year old was originally sentenced to pay a fine of $2000 and serve 18 months’ probation, including nine months’ community service, for one count of cultivating cannabis by Justice Potter in the Cook Islands High Court in March.
The charge was originally laid against Wachter late last year, following the execution by police of a search warrant on her family home in Arorangi.
They discovered fifty cannabis plants growing on Wachter’s balcony, with some being as tall as 73 centimetres. The police say a number of the plants had been growing for “up to four months”.
Two of Wachter’s family members were also arrested during the search. They were convicted and sentenced on similar charges relating to the cultivation of 15 cannabis plants, located on a separate level of the family’s four-storey residence.
One received a fine of $900 and was sentenced to serve six months’ community service, while the other was fined $800 and sentenced to serve six months’ community service.
The police also found 28 grams of dried cannabis and 134 cannabis seeds, as well as a number of utensils and products used for the cultivation of the prohibited substance during the search.
A single charge of cannabis cultivation carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.
“Such high penalties are not necessarily uniformly regarded as appropriate throughout the world, but we have a duty to uphold Cook Islands law despite a more lenient approach in New Zealand,” read the judgment of the appeal, delivered by Barker JA.
At the original sentencing, Justice Potter said she was “reluctant” to send the first-time offender to jail. She highlighted a number of mitigating factors to help justify the imposition of a non-custodial sentence on Wachter.
On November 30 2014, the Cook Islands Court of Appeal laid down guidelines for sentencing drug offenders in the Marsters case. The judgement in the Marsters case determined that the Court had previously been “too lenient” in its sentencing of drug offenders and had possessed “little regard” for the lengthy maximum sentences available to them.
“The sentence imposed was clearly inadequate and we would be failing in our duty if we did not allow this appeal,” said Barker JA of Crown Law’s appeal against Justice Potter’s original decision in the Wachter case.
Crown Law’s appeal was successful on the grounds that Justice Potter had over-emphasised the defendant’s personal circumstances and had not taken “sufficient account” of the precedent set out in the case of Marsters. Therefore, the three-judge bench overturned the original non-custodial sentence and imposed a sentence of six months’ imprisonment plus a years’ probation.
“So unfortunately we have to allow this appeal. We do so with reluctance – but in accordance with our duty under the Cook Islands law which we are sworn to uphold, we must do so.”
Wachter’s counsel Wilkie Rasmussen says the decision may yet be appealed, which could see it taken to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom.