– Case stays in magistrate’s court

JEREMY Rich had a win of sorts in the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court last Thursday.
The former South Gippsland Shire Councillor was appearing to face 11 charges arising out of a drug bust at his family’s Walkerville grazing property in April last year.
Through his barrister, Steven Pica, a prominent Melbourne criminal law specialist, he successfully petitioned the court for his case to be heard at magistrates’ court level, rather than in the intermediate-level County Court where heavier penalties can apply.
But he’s not out of the woods yet.
As Magistrate Anne Collins pointed out, when granting Mr Rich’s Summary Jurisdiction Application, the opportunity to apply an aggregate sentence of up to five years in the magistrates’ court still provided an adequate sentencing range.
The other development in Mr Rich’s case last Thursday was the withdrawal of four of the 15 charges laid against him after the police raid at Walkerville on Monday, April 15, 2019, including allegations of trafficking and possession of ecstasy after testing revealed no ecstasy was found at the scene.
But 11 charges remain, acknowledged by Magistrate Collins as being allegations of serious offending.
The charges include: Possess, cultivate and traffic cannabis; possesses and traffic cocaine; possess THC; and possess a .22 calibre rifle, shotgun and ammunition cartridges without a licence.
Having granted Mr Rich’s application, Ms Collins set the next court date for Thursday, March 19, at Latrobe Magistrates’ Court, for a contest mention hearing, at which the matters may either be resolved by negotiation or set down for a contested hearing at a later date.

Points of contention
Mr Rich sat towards the back of Court Two in the Morwell justice complex last Thursday, wearing a dark suit and silver-coloured tie, but he took no part in what was essentially a procedural hearing.
Both the defence counsel, Steven Pica for Mr Rich, and Crown Prosecutor, Daniel Porceddu, gave reasons why the case would be better dealt with in the magistrates’ court in Mr Pica’s case, or as the police wanted, at County Court level but Magistrate Collins ultimately ruled it could remain in the magistrates’ court.
Mr Pica claimed the quantity of cannabis recovered from the property was never over the 25kg “commercial quantity” threshold. He said there were only eight plants being grown on a remote part of the 1000-acre property when police arrived, that one of Mr Rich’s co-accused, Bojan Vukovic, a 34-year-old Serbian national, was more closely connected to the drugs than Mr Rich and that two guns recovered were typical of firearms at most large farming properties.
Mr Vukovic was sentenced to one year’s jail at the same court, on Friday, November 29, after pleading guilty to five charges.
“It’s not unusual to have firearms on a farm. They weren’t loaded and cocked under the bed. They weren’t going to aggravate the situation,” Mr Pica said, noting that while Mr Rich was not licensed to have the guns, they were securely locked away for safety.
Mr Pica went on to raise doubts about Mr Rich’s connection with the property, saying his main address was in Armidale, that his only involvement was as a director of the family trust (at the time), and that he visited to check on the farm from time to time, especially when in South Gippsland for council duties.
“A lot of people had access to the property,” he said, alleging that one of Mr Rich’s co-accused spent a lot more time onsite than his client.
But the prosecution said the public record showed that Mr Rich visited the property regularly and the fact that he owned the property differentiated him from his co-accused.
He denied the cannabis recovered from the site failed to reach the commercial quantity threshold, noting that “there was no less than 39kg of cannabis… just below double a commercial quantity”.
He argued that the case should be heard in the County Court due to several aggravating factors; he owned the property and allowed it to be used for criminal purposes, a certain level of organisation was needed to grow and dry the cannabis, and that there were two firearms present.
“We say this is serious offending… indicating a jail term as a starting point,” Mr Porceddu said.
Apart from the next court date and its setting in the magistrates’ court, however, nothing has yet been proved against Mr Rich.