The prison, the judiciary and politicians are all in the news because of the early release of a female tourist who was sentenced for possessing several rounds of ammunition as she tried to leave Antigua at the V.C. Bird International Airport. A lot of people are upset because the woman was given some type of ‘preferential treatment’ and there are claims of political interference.
Before we address the brouhaha, let’s look at what happened. The story is simple. Shannon Martinez, a resident of Austin, Texas, came on a 12-day vacation with her husband and two young children. After what we hoped was a good vacation, she and her family headed to the airport to depart. As they were being processed by the airport security, she was asked to open her suitcase for it to be searched. It was then that security found a box of 9mm ammunition containing 20 rounds. If you know anything about Texas, you would know they love their guns, so anyone saying they have a box of ammo in their bag is like saying they have their cellphone.
In any case, Martinez said it was an honest mistake and that she had purchased the box of bullets in her country and had simply forgotten them in the suitcase. The problem is, we do not have the love affair with guns in this country, so she was arrested and eventually sentenced to one year in prison by Magistrate Ngaio Emanuel in accordance with recent amendments to the Firearms Act that removed fines as an option for punishment.
So, in summary, a visitor to our island leaves America with a box of ammo, gets by ‘rigid’ Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checks, gets by our customs checks, spends 12 days in paradise and is caught leaving with the ammo. From our point of view, if there is something to get upset about, it is the breakdown in the security checks along the way.
Yes, Martinez broke our laws but it appears that it was an honest mistake. She does not appear to be a hardened criminal, nor did she sell or leave the ammunition in the country, so what benefits do we gain by imprisoning her? Sure, we can make a point, and many people seem willing to do so, but do we would have to throw away some level of common sense and humanity in the process. And if we are going to hang our hat on this incident to prove that we are “a country of laws” then we are sadly missing the big picture.
Considering that this mother of two and her bags likely went through multiple TSA checkpoints, and our customs processing, the glaring problem seems to be the security deficiencies. What is more important? The fact that the visitor was found with the ammunition upon her departure or the fact that she was able to travel with it in the first place? Shouldn’t the focus be on how the ammunition slipped through the checks and balances that have been implemented to stop this exact thing from happening? We know that the defense of our local customs is that they try not to hassle tourists because they do not want to leave a bad first impression, and it is hard to argue that we should be more aggressive with our visitors, so we have to strike a balance. But maybe the TSA needs to launch an investigation into how this was allowed to happen. You can’t get by security with a bottle of water but somehow ammunition slipped through?
Now, we know that we have not touched on the topic of political interference or the statements by Superintendent of Prisons Albert Wade that he, alone, requested remission on Martinez’s behalf, but that is for another time. That said, we will say that we are a bit perplexed that the superintendent said that he made the request for remission because we were under the impression that remission is earned, not given simply because the authority at the prison feels that a sentence is excessive. We have not seen any evidence of political interference, but from a practical point of view, would anyone really fault the government if they sought to head-off some bad publicity or a diplomatic issue over a situation like this?
We get back to our original question: what positive would we gain by imprisoning this visitor for leaving the country with the same ammunition with which she arrived.
And for those further down the political conspiracy rabbit hole who think that maybe she came here with more than what she was leaving, we think you need re-evaluate things a bit. 20 rounds of 9mm ammunition costs only about US$5 to $10 in gun-loving Texas – hardly an amount worth risking a prison sentence. It would have been easier for Martinez to dump the ammo and leave empty-handed but that would certainly have been worse for us if they fell into the wrong hands.
There is no question that this was an unfortunate, badly handled situation. Lots went wrong and questions remain, but was ‘justice’ delivered? We think so. The bigger issues still remain, including the need for a proper legal reform committee that examines our laws, especially mandatory sentencing, in consultation with all parties. And, when we say “parties,” we do not mean political parties – just to be clear.
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