British Columbia

'Don't do the crime if you can't do the time': Judge slams fentanyl dealer over volunteering plea

Sixty hours of volunteering over two years is not nearly enough to escape jail time for the "exceptional" crime of selling fentanyl on the streets of Vernon, according to a B.C. judge.

Sung Hwan Choi receives 18 months' jail time, despite recent volunteer time in soup kitchen

Sung Hwan Choi stood trial for fentanyl trafficking in Vernon Provincial Court. (John Deacon Q.C./courthouses.co)

Sixty hours of volunteering over two years is not nearly enough to escape jail time for the "exceptional" crime of selling fentanyl on the streets of Vernon, according to a B.C. judge.

Provincial Court Judge Jeremy Guild reminded 23-year-old Sung Hwan Choi about the catchphrase of the 1970s TV detective Baretta: "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."

Last month, Guild rejected Choi's plea for leniency after his conviction for possessing a mixture of heroin and fentanyl for the purposes of trafficking, sentencing him to 18 months behind bars.

Choi had argued that his efforts to turn his life around — including finding legitimate employment and volunteering at a soup kitchen — were exceptional enough to merit a suspended sentence, but Guild disagreed.

"It is the crime that is exceptional, not the offender's circumstances," the judge wrote in his reasons for sentence.

He said that Choi's decision to travel from his home in Surrey to the Okanagan to participate in a "dial-a-dope" operation involving potentially lethal substances was worthy of denunciation.

"He travelled here to spread the plague of illicit hard drugs; he was motivated solely by greed; getting caught did not deter him from associating with his criminal friends; he ignored the risk he took in selling drugs with fentanyl; and he suggested he was less morally culpable, demonstrating an inexcusable lack of awareness of the harm he was causing," Guild wrote.

Dealer apologizes for harm

Choi was arrested on Oct. 27, 2017 as part of a police investigation into people suspected of bringing drugs from the Lower Mainland to Vernon.

He was holding cocaine, methamphetamine and the heroin/fentanyl mixture at the time, but the majority of that evidence was excluded at trial because of charter rights violations by the arresting officers, according to the judge's reasons.

Choi had come to Vernon after a friend from high school offered him work selling drugs, Guild wrote. Before then, he'd been living at home with his mother, struggling to hold down a warehouse job because of his "bad attitude."

Sung Hwan Choi has been sentenced to 18 months in jail in Vernon Provincial Court for trafficking heroin laced with fentanyl. (Dom Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

In the time since his arrest, Choi has moved back home with his family and now has a job building computer shelves for Amazon, while occasionally volunteering for the Vancouver Shepherd's House Society.

The friend who recruited him into the drug trade has been murdered.

"He said he understood now the effects of fentanyl on society and Vernon and apologized for the harm he caused," Guild wrote of Choi.

"He said that the murder of his friend had a significant impact on him. That death seems to have brought home to him some of the impacts of his offending, more so than his arrest."

But Choi also argued that he didn't realize there was fentanyl in what he was selling.

Guild said that was no excuse in the midst of B.C.'s high-profile fentanyl crisis, and Choi would have to be "wilfully blind" not to realize he was causing harm.

"Mr. Choi was selling drugs for a couple of weeks before being caught for this offence, which means he would have met addicts, with poverty and addiction's other negative consequences obvious. One would have to try, to not know of the harm illicit drugs cause," Guild wrote.

Choi's jail term will be followed by 12 months of probation. He's also prohibited from owning weapons for 10 years and will have to submit a DNA sample.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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