Mark Chalcroft was sentenced to two years in prison on 21st March for possession of a rocket launcher and growing cannabis. What’s it all about? Why so much (or, indeed, so long)? Is this a further indication that sentencing policy for firearms is all over the place?
Mr Chalcroft had been in the Territorial Army for 12 years (and was presumably of ‘good character’ – someone who has never been in trouble before). Police attended his block of flocks on another call and smelt cannabis from the 28 plants that he was growning. They therefore searched his flat and found the 3 foot rocket launcher under his bed.
The rocket launcher was still capable of being used (despite having ‘deactivated’ stamped on it), but there were no missiles with it. It is designed to be used to destroy tanks or buildings within a range of 200m. The Judge, however, accepted that Mr Chalcroft had bought it as a souvenir and had no intention of using it.
We don’t have the sentencing remarks, or the exact details of what the charge is, but assume that it was under s5(1)(ae) Firearms Act 1968 – the piece of law that prohibits the possession of “any rocket launcher, or any mortar, for projecting a stabilised missile, other than a launcher or mortar designed for line-throwing or pyrotechnic purposes or as signalling apparatus“.
This attracts the mandatory sentencing provisions. Therefore the Court has to pass a sentence of at least 5 years in prison unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’. We have looked at this before in the context of the Sgt Nightingale Case, as well as that of Robert Downes.
The sentence passed was under 5 years, which means that the Judge must have accepted that there were exceptional circumstances. The Judge reportedly said in sentencing “‘I accept your basis of plea, that you purchased the weapon as a kind of souvenir and never intended to use it. It has a deactivation stamp on it, which suggests it could not be fired. But as a former member of the Territorial Army you should have checked if this was a potentially dangerous weapon or not.”
This doesn’t really help in identifying what the exceptional circumstances were found to be. As has been said before, the following are not exceptional:
- Good character
- Guilty plea
- No intention to use the weapon
- The lawful acquisition of the weapon
The only point here of legal relevance would appear to be that Mr Chalcroft believe that it had decommissioned, but that would not seem in law to be ‘exceptional’. We will have to wait for further details, but on the face of it, it would seem to be unduly lenient and at risk of an Attorney-General’s Reference (where the Prosecution appeal saying that the sentence was too short), although we know that the Court of Appeal’s head can be turned by a man in uniform …
This is more straightforward. There are Sentencing Guidelines for drugs (see p18). On the face of it, the offence would be ‘Category 3’ (based on the number of plants) and ‘Lesser Role’ (on the basis that there is nothing to say that he wasn’t growing it for his own use). This would give a likely sentence (especially as there was a guilty plea) of a Community Order.
The rocket launcher offence is far more serious. What the Judge would probably have done is sentence for that and then pass a concurrent (and much lower) sentence for the cannabis.
This case is one that could well end up in the Court of Appeal from either side – there is a case to be made for the sentence being ‘manifestly excessive’ as well as ‘unduly lenient’ for the reasons set out below. It also shows what a mess we are in with firearms legislation.
On the one hand, this was a weapon without any ammunition and it is not particularly easy to pick up missiles for it (you won’t get a BOGOF at Tescos). Also, it is not like a revolver that can be discretely used to frighten or shoot. If you could fire it, people around you are going to notice. Further, if it had been deactivated, it would appear to have been legal to have had it. On that basis, was it not reasonable to rely on the deactivated stamp? What is the actual criminality? For that reason, there seems to be a good basis for saying that a non-custodial sentence is appropriate.
On the other, compare it to the cases quoted in the pieces linked to above. Are the circumstances truly ‘exceptional’? Leaving aside the Nightingale case, all the cases seem to suggest that a 5 year sentence should have been passed.
Looking at the comments on the Daily Mail website where this case was reported, it seems that the general view is that the sentence is too high. It may be one to watch to see if any momentum picks up in favour of him. If so, this could see a successful appeal. Even if he doesn’t attract the public attention, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up in the Court of Appeal one way or another.