Unfortunately this story is as stupid as it sounds.
On 12 March 2015, the Sheffield Star reported that Edward Cooper, 24, had pleaded guilty to possession of a prohibited weapon and simple possession of cannabis and was sentenced.
Well, Cooper was involved in a car accident in a stolen Skoda. The Skoda had been abandoned but the police were called back to the scene following reports of two men arguing. Cooper was arrested in connection with the stolen car (possibly aggravated vehicle-taking) and taken to the station. A search of Cooper revealed a wrap of cannabis (resulting in his further arrest for possession) and also a mobile phone. Examination of his mobile phone revealed a picture of Cooper posing with a sawn-off shot-gun. He was then arrested for possession of a prohibited weapon. Silly boy eh?
A subsequent searched revealed parts of the weapon in a bag in Cooper’s property. His prints were found on the parts, as well as the stolen Skoda.
His story was that he had been asked to mind the weapon for another person
Cooper had a lengthy record with 34 offences beginning when he was aged 14. He had been released from a sentence of 3½ years for perverting the course of justice and remained subject to the licence when he committed these offences.
Under the Firearms Act 1968 s.5, there are a number of prohibited weapons which it is an offence to possess. These include stun guns, firearms designed to look like innocent objects and unfortunately for Cooper – although perhaps not surprisingly – a shot-gun with a shortened barrel.
The maximum sentence is 10 years. Unfortunately for Cooper – and many others like him – there is also a minimum sentence of 5 years (see Firearms Act 1968 s.51A).
This part of the news report is a little unclear. It appears that the judge imposed a sentence of 6 years for the firearms offence alone. We presume that there was also an offence relating to the Skoda, perhaps aggravated vehicle taking or at the very least, theft. It is unclear whether an additional sentence was imposed for that offence. It is unlikely that a sentence was imposed for the cannabis offence, as it is so minor and bordering on the irrelevant when considered next to the firearms offence.
As to the firearms offence sentence, the minimum is 5 years unless there are exceptional circumstances which make it unjust to impose such a sentence. It is clear in this case that there are no such circumstances. When considering such cases, judges refer to what are known as the “four Avis questions”:
- What sort of weapon is involved?
- What (if any) use has been made of the firearm?
- With what intention (if any) did the defendant possess or use the firearm?
- What is the defendant’s record?
Not all of those questions would have been answered adversely to Cooper – it seems likely that it would have been accepted that he was merely the custodial of the weapon (however true that actually is). However, minding firearms is a very serious matter and the courts cannot allow those keeping the weapons for others to get off lightly, as such practice would fuel criminals using more vulnerable people to keep such weapons.
A sentence of 6 years – on a guilty plea – appears to be over the top for the firearms offence alone. However, there may be additional facts or the six year sentence may be the total sentence for all of Cooper’s offending. Even if that is so, any appeal would only result in a reduction to the minimum of five years.
The Star stated that Cooper would begin his sentence next year, once his licence for his previous offence has expired. This appears to be incorrect. There is no power to make a sentence consecutive to licence recall (there used to be but this was very unhelpfully repealed). The result is that, Cooper was recalled to serve the remainder of his sentence for perverting the course of justice. It appears that expires in January 2016. However, after his recall, he pleaded guilty to the above offences and was sentenced. That sentence begins immediately and therefore his licence recall is effectively swallowed up by his new sentence. The effect is that he has “got away” with not serving the remainder of his licence, however the judge will no doubt have increased the sentence to reflect the fact that the new offences were committed on licence.
This problem is known to the courts and was discussed in R. v Whittles in which the court said:
In referring to the changes made by the 2003 Act, the judge had in mind the provisions of section 265 which prohibit a court from imposing a sentence to run consecutively to an earlier sentence in respect of which the offender has been released on a licence which has subsequently been revoked. The 2003 Act also removed the power under section 116 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 to order an offender (in respect of offences committed after 4th April 2005) to return to prison to serve the appropriate proportion of the earlier sentence. The effect of these changes is that, where an offence or offences is or are committed at a time when there is a substantial proportion of a licence period relating to a previous offence still to run, the court sentencing for that offence or those offences may in effect be powerless to impose any additional period of custody to reflect the later criminality.”