Court of Appeal Affirms Limited Impact of Post-sentencing Behavior in Sentence Appeals

Citation: [2023] EWCA Crim 1405
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Justas Bieksa v R is a pivotal decision in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) that examines the principles of sentencing, grounds for appeal against sentence, and how post-sentencing behavior intersects with the appeals process. The ruling clarifies under what circumstances the appellate court may intervene to amend a sentence and the limited impact that exemplary behavior in custody can have on an appeal against sentence length.

Key Facts

Justas Bieksa pleaded guilty to multiple drug-related offenses, including the supply of Class A and B drugs, as well as fraudulent evasion of drug prohibitions. He received a total prison sentence of 9 years. Following the initial sentencing, Bieksa sought to renew his application for leave to appeal against the sentence after it was refused by the Single Judge. The appeal was based on the argument that the categorization of the offenses was incorrect and that the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive.

Several legal principles are in focus in this case:

Principle of Categorization

The category of offense for sentencing purposes must reflect the seriousness and sophistication of the crime. The Recorder found the drug operation to be sophisticated, using the dark web and cryptocurrencies, hence categorizing it as a leading role in category 2.

Principle of Reduction for Guilty Pleas

Bieksa’s sentence was reduced by 25% for his early guilty plea. This is consistent with the principle that defendants who plead guilty should be granted some leniency for their acknowledgment of wrongdoing and saving of court resources.

Principle of Totality

The Recorder applied the principle of totality by imposing a longer term for the most serious count and concurrent sentences for the others, ensuring that the sentence properly reflects the offender’s criminality as a whole.

Principle of Post-sentencing Behavior

Good behavior and positive contributions in custody are commendable but do not ordinarily provide a basis for reducing a sentence on appeal.

Principle of Sentencing According to Circumstances at the Time

Sentences should reflect the law and circumstances at the time of sentencing. Subsequent external events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are not grounds for an appeal unless the sentence’s length implicates very short sentences or specific relevant factors.

Precedent: R v Manning

The case of R v Manning [2020] EWCA Crim 592 was cited in the context of COVID-19. It was noted that the guidance on sentencing reductions due to the pandemic would not have applied to Bieksa’s case even if it had been precedent at the time due to the length of his sentence.

Outcomes

The Court of Appeal unanimously denied Bieksa’s application for leave to appeal. The Court held that appeal courts do not alter sentences simply because the appellant has since shown good behavior or has made positive changes post-sentencing, as per R v Waddingham. The initial sentence was deemed neither wrong in principle nor manifestly excessive.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal in Justas Bieksa v R reinforces the principle that lawful and appropriate sentences should not be disturbed on appeal merely because of the defendant’s subsequent good behavior or the occurrence of external events post-sentencing. The case underscores the boundaries of the appellate court’s remit in sentence appeals and the narrow scope for reconsidering sentence length after the initial imposition. It provides guidance on the permanence of sentencing decisions aligned with the context and legal framework at the time of the offense and sentencing.

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