Ten months after he was arrested for attempting to smuggle cocaine into Canada, a man who swallowed 66 condoms containing the illicit drug was sentenced to an additional 20 months in custody for the crime.
In imposing the penalty on Ricardo Vasquez in Surrey Provincial Court Friday, Judge James Sutherland said he’d heard no evidence to support that Vasquez was anything more than a courier in the operation.
At the same time, he wasn’t convinced Vasquez’s involvement in the “very serious” crime was spontaneous.
“There had to have been at least some degree of premeditation on the part of Mr. Vasquez,” Sutherland said.
Vasquez – a 36-year-old resident of Mexico who was born in the U.S. – has been in custody since Sept. 7, after border guards at the Pacific Highway crossing in South Surrey became suspicious of information provided by Vasquez, who was a passenger on a northbound bus.
A first-time visitor to Canada, he initially told border guards he was travelling from Chicago, Ill. to Whistler to see a friend, but he had no return ticket; then he said he was travelling from Mexico via Chicago. He was also found to be carrying two cellphones, one of which bore a text message that appeared to point to a plan to import drugs, the court heard.
During monitoring in a “drug loo” at Vancouver airport, Vasquez admitted to swallowing “about 20 pellets,” then began excreting them about 30 minutes later.
The balance of the 66 pellets – a total 725 grams of cocaine with an estimated street value of just over $25,000 – were collected at Richmond Hospital over the next two days.
In sentencing submissions, federal prosecutor James Whiting had asked Sutherland to impose a four-year sentence on Vasquez. Defence counsel Evi dos Santos asked either for time served, or for additional time to be in the form of a conditional sentence.
Sutherland said Friday that he considered three key issues in sentencing: if Vasquez had proven his motive for the crime, which the court heard was to repay a debt incurred as a result of medical bills for his young son; if his immigration status in Canada, or lack of, should affect the penalty; and, if Vasquez should be given “enhanced” credit for the time he has already spent in custody.
Regarding the latter, Sutherland said a recent B.C. Court of Appeal ruling means enhanced credit – awarding two days’ credit for every one day spent in pre-sentence custody – can only be justified if an offender can prove he or she has been subjected to hardship, segregated or otherwise onerous conditions while awaiting sentencing.
In deciding against awarding Vasquez enhanced credit, Sutherland noted he has “taken full advantage” of rehabilitative programs available to him and even earned an income as cleaner while incarcerated.
Sutherland said he did not consider immigration consequences relevant, given that Vasquez was never admitted to Canada and that he was “not satisfied” that Vasquez had proven he was motivated by a desperate need to help his infant son.
Prescriptions submitted for the boy’s treatment were dated “over five months past the offence date,” Sutherland said, and no proof the boy was hospitalized was produced.
While Sutherland acknowledged Vasquez was “profoundly remorseful” for his actions, he said the gravity of the offence cannot be downplayed.
“Cocaine is not indigenous to Canada. Consequently, it can only enter Canada through importers like Mr. Vasquez,” he said.
Any sympathies for Vasquez’s circumstances “must be subordinate to the need to protect society.”
In addition to the 2½-year jail term, Sutherland imposed a 10-year firearms prohibition, ordered the forfeiture of all items seized from Vasquez and ordered him to provide a DNA sample.
“Mr. Vasquez, I have no doubt that this has been very difficult for you,” Sutherland told the prisoner at the conclusion of his reasons. “You will get through it, and then you can move on.”
Vasquez’s lawyer said outside court that his client was “very lucky” to receive the sentence he did, noting another of his clients who was caught trying to smuggle crystal meth into the U.S. was recently handed a five-year term. Vasquez roomed with that individual, he said.
Dos Santos said that given his client’s lack of status in Canada, he will likely serve two-thirds of the remaining sentence, then be immediately deported.
Whiting said Sutherland “certainly made every effort to balance all of the factors he should in coming to his decision.”