Judgment No. HB 118/2002
Case No. HC 3692/2002
CRB REG 781/2002
IN THE HIGH COURT OF ZIMBABWE
BULAWAYO 17 OCTOBER 2002
CHEDA J: The accused, a woman aged 38 years appeared before the
regional court on 22 July 2002 and was charged with theft by finding of a colour
television valued at $75 000 which was recovered.
The brief facts according to the state outline are that sometime in June 2002 in
the early hours of the morning while on her way to the market she came across the
said television hidden in the bush. She picked up the television set, took it to her
home and kept it for herself.
As a result of information received she was arrested and brought to court. She
pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 36 months imprisonment with
labour of which 18 months imprisonment with labour was suspended on condition of
In mitigation accused told the court that she is an unmarried mother of two
minor children. In addition she looks after two of her late sister’s minor children and
also looks after her mother as she is the only breadwinner. She is not formally
employed but she is a vendor who realises about $1 800 per day. She has no savings
and no assets.
During the proceedings the following exchange recorded in long hand took
place between the court and the accused.
“Q Intend to permanently deprive complainant of his property?
A I was just keeping and I was g… (this was later cancelled)
Q Why did you not surrender it to the police?
A I did not know that I was supposed to surrender it to the police.”
The plea was altered to not guilty. The accused was then remanded to 26
August 2002. When she appeared on 26 August 2002 the following exchange took
place between the court and herself:-
“Q Do you stick to your explanation that you intended to surrender the television to the police?
Q For how long did you keep the television
A 3 weeks
Q What stopped you from surrendering the television to the police in 3 weeks?
A I was waiting for … to come and claim the television (sentence not complete)
Court:-You have no defence, you had ample time to surrender the television to the police. I am convinced that you intended to permanently deprive the owner of the television. I find you guilty as charged.”
There is then a typed judgment, which reads:
“Madam, you are raising no defence, I see no defence in what you are saying. In fact it will be a waste of time for me to alter your plea from one of guilty to not guilty because at the end of the day you will be convicted.
You kept the television for three weeks and I believe you had ample time to surrender that television at the police if your intention was not to permanently deprive the owner of the television.
In fact, you are lucky that you were not charged with housebreaking with intent to steal and theft. Because it is difficult to believe that you pick a television from the bush and keep it for three weeks. It is like you pick a motor vehicle from the bush and drive it for three weeks and say that you intended to surrender it. Any right thinking person like you should have been forced to go and surrender the television, take the television straight from the bush to the police without even going to your home.
Like I said you have no defence, I find you GUILTY AS CHARGED.”
The accused found the television in the bush in the early hours of the morning.
When essential elements were being put to her she proffered an explanation. It is
clear from the explanation that her plea of guilty cannot objectively be said to be a
genuine plea of guilty. A plea of guilty should emanate from a full and conscious
understanding of the charge the accused is facing especially in a common law
offence. The accused was remanded to appear again after a month and the first
question put to her is designed in such a way that the court hoped that in view
of the length of time the accused would have changed her mind. The change of mind
on accused’s part would thus make the magistrate’s work easier, as it appears to me
that he was eager to conclude this matter at all costs. A judicial officer should never
ever lose sight of the fact that his duty is to dispense justice in the fairest manner
possible. Justice should never be sacrificed at the altar of expediency. It is essential
that judicial officers should constantly remind themselves of the danger of misuse or
abuse of power, which can easily result in miscarriage of justice.
It is quite clear that the accused wanted to explain why she did not surrender
the television to the police, but the magistrate seems to have omitted the last part of
the explanation. In view of the magistrate’s attitude as evidenced by his unsavoury
and unwarranted remarks which have no factual or legal basis one can only draw one
obvious inference being that he allowed his thoughts to be overcome by malice and as
such lost focus of the facts before him which resulted in convicting the accused
despite her desire to explain herself.
His remarks that accused has no defence when he has not accorded her an
opportunity to be heard is to say the least unfair and offends against the audi alteram
partem rule. There is no basis for this conclusion as no trial was conducted. He
wrote what he refers to as “Judgment”, the question is what judgment, when there was
no evidence. In the so called “judgment” he remarks:- “In fact, you are lucky that you
were not charged with housebreaking and theft.” There is no where in the record to
indicate that the television in question was found where it was as a result of a break-
in. I therefore cannot see the relevance of this remark. It is either the magistrate does
not understand the procedure of a trial or deliberately chose to circumvent the whole
procedure for his own purposes.
He proceeded to sentence accused to 36 months imprisonment with labour of
which 18 months imprisonment with labour was suspended on the usual conditions.
The sentence is manifestly excessive in the circumstances. The offence of theft by
finding is clearly distinguishable from ordinary theft in that in theft by finding there is
a sudden temptation to keep what one has found as the accused erroneously believes
that the property is res nullius as opposed to ordinary theft where in most cases there
is pre-meditation. In light of this the moral blameworthiness of the accused would
generally be lower and as such should attract a more lenient sentence, see S v
Khumalo & AnorHB 115-93 where accused found property in the bush worth $1 700.
It was held by CHEDAJ with BLACKIEJ concurring that in theft by finding cases
accused should not be sentenced to prison terms for the simple reason that the value
of the property involved is high. The sentence was altered to a fine of $500 and 3
months imprisonment suspended. The accused is a female first offender with a lot of
responsibility. Women are generally treated leniently, see S v Storry HH 176-94
where a cashier stole $6 101,00 from her employer. She made full restitution for the
stolen money. On review the sentence was reduced to a fine of $1 500 and 3 months
imprisonment with labour wholly suspended.
In the present case the complainant was not found and the property was
recovered. There are in my view more mitigatory features than the aggravating ones,
which should have attracted a sentence other than a prison term. It is pertinent to
highlight that of late there has been an influx of cases coming for review from the
same magistrate with either excessive sentences or procedural errors. The Ministry of
Justice, Legal & Parliamentary Affairs’ attention is drawn to the increasing errors by
the same magistrate. There is therefore a need for urgent intervention to correct what
is glaringly an injustice being perpetrated by the acting Regional Magistrate.
There has been a misdirection by the learned acting regional Magistrate
which has resulted in the miscarriage of justice in this matter. Accordingly both
conviction and sentence is set aside and the matter is referred for trial de novo before
a different magistrate.
Chiweshe J ……………. I agree