The Magistrates Court took into consideration the long-standing tradition that takes place in feasts and the public safety in considering criminal charges. This was held on 9 July 2019 in a judgement delivered by Magistrate Dr Caroline Farrugia Frendo in Pulizija vs Edmund Saliba and Laurence Portelli.
Portelli was accused of not using diligence in firing fireworks at the San Guzepp Band Club in Hamrun. Then Portelli and Saliba were accused of allowing and firing fireworks on the roof of the band club at 1.02am, without a licence and without an insurance policy.
The prosecution had presented a number of documents and produced Superintendent Carmelo Bartolo as a witness. In the 2016 feast, the San Guzepp Band Club applied for permits related to fireworks and band marches. There was a similar application from the rival San Gejtanu Band Club. On the night of 7 August 2019 both band clubs let off fireworks at 1.02am. He said that someone from the band club asked whether he could fire on the roof and he gave a negative reply, but just the same they let them off.
Superintendent Bartolo instructed that an investigation commence against both band clubs. Superintendent Bartolo, when cross examined, said that in 2014 the Commissioner of Police had given permission to the band club to let off fireworks for an extra 20 minutes, but in fact these lasted fo 45 minutes more. With regard to the application for fireworks, an insurance policy was attached, with a condition that fireworks must be let off during the time the permit allowed.
A police inspector that was present on the night of 7 August 2016 confirmed that there were fireworks after 12.30am on the roofs of the two band clubs. Another police inspector testified that he had been part of the organisation of the feast of St Gaetan since 2013. On the night both bands stopped playing before 1am and in order for both band clubs to give a signal that they were withdrawing from the streets, they fire a small fireworks display.
Magistrate Dr Farrugia Frendo first dealt with whether the band club was covered by an insurance policy. An insurance policy is a must according to the Explosives Ordinance. The prosecution presented photocopies of the policy. The Court pointed out that the documents were photocopies, which is not the best evidence. The prosecution did not present any representatives of the insurance company to confirm the copy. It is the insurance company that has to confirm whether the band club would have been insured after the hours mentioned in the permit. Therefore, the accused were found not guilty of this charge.
The Court also found the accused not guilty of the third charge, since there was an error in the charge sheet. Lawrence Portelli is not the secretary of the San Gejtanu Band Club, as stated in the charge, but that of St Joseph.
As regards the charge of firing fireworks after the stipulated time, the evidence showed that the fireworks were let off after 12.30am, but did not stipulate when they stopped. The band clubs stopped playing in the streets at 1am. The feast of St Gaetan is a tense one due to the rivalry between the two band clubs and therefore, the police are aware that the two clubs let off fireworks in order to signal that their respective bands have stopped playing.
This is derived from agreements which always existed and constituted a tradition. The fireworks are not part of a display but a signal for the supporters that both bands stopped at the same time. This was also an assistance to police in order to assure themselves that the law and order would be kept. What happened in 2016 was the same as what had taken place in previous years. Again the application for a permit to let off fireworks was a photocopy and not the original. The copy was difficult to read.
The law states that no fireworks shall be let off after 12.30am. The Commissioner of Police issues the permits, in which the times are listed. It is the police that have the discretion to allow fireworks after 12.30am. The law does not give a time-frame, meaning that there is no indication when the fireworks can restart after 12.30am and therefore, allowing the police an amount of discretion for them to regulate in cases such as the Hamrun feast.
As to the charge that Lawrence Portelli allowed fireworks to take place at the St Gaetan band Club without a permit, the Court held that in the circumstances the band club has to allow fireworks at the time, because their supporters were waiting for the signal as has happened for decades. If the signal was not given, then there would be an issue of lack of law and order in the streets. Therefore, it was prudent that Portelli allowed the fireworks to be let off.
The accused were also found not guilty of this charge.
Avv. Malcolm Mifsud
Mifsud & Mifsud Advocates
This article can also be accessed on MaltaToday.