New Zealand teen appeals prison term for dark net ‘criminal enterprise’
Lawyers argue that the more than two year sentence for 14 drugs charges was too severe for a case this unusual and the defendant’s ‘neurological immaturity’ should be considered
By Sam Hurley
A young man caught operating a “dark net” drug ring from his parents’ home in New Zealand can return to the scene of the crime after successfully appealing his more than two-year prison sentence.
Elias Valentin Smith, a baby-faced teenager at the time, was importing drugs from all over the world and paying in bitcoin before police raided his unsuspecting parents’ North Shore home as part of Operation Tiger.
Last month, the Herald revealed the offending, which a judge described as “absolutely chilling” for a parent to bear witness to.
The case also highlighted concern over how accessible illicit substances are online for young people.
Smith’s parents watched on April 13 in the Auckland District Court as Judge Russell Collins jailed their son for two years and three months on 14 drugs charges.
Today, in the High Court at Auckland, they were again present as their now 20-year-old son’s lawyer appealed Judge Collins’ sentence. Smith was not in court.
His lawyer Marie Dyhrberg QC argued before Justice Pheroze Jagose that the starting point adopted by Judge Collins was too high.
Smith had received a two-year discount for his youth, one year for personal circumstances, one year for his rehabilitation efforts and a 25 per cent discount for his guilty plea. He had no previous convictions.
Justice Jagose asked if Dyhrberg considered a 55 per cent reduction over the guilty plea inadequate.
The Queen’s Counsel barrister, seeking home detention for her client at his parents’ home, said the case was highly unusual and special circumstances should be made for Smith’s neurological immaturity.
She said drug dealers “in it for the money and the game” should be dealt with by the courts in a harsher way than those with no substance addiction.
However, Crown lawyer David Green said Smith’s appeal should not be viewed as a second shot at a sentencing.
“This is extremely serious offending. Mr Smith was, at a young age, very much a drug dealer,” he said.
Dyhrberg had argued at sentencing that Smith was naive but Judge Collins asked: “Would a young gang prospect on the East Coast of the North Island, who is looking at prison time for methamphetamine, accept that someone who was purposing drugs on the dark net and paying in bitcoin was not worldly wise and naïve?”
Dyhrberg argued Smith didn’t have a criminal mind and his offending was not for commercial purposes.
Of the 14 charges Smith faced, 10 have been defined by Parliament as drug dealing.
His co-offender and best mate, Nicholas Michael Barker, who Smith elicited to help him with the scheme, was sentenced to eight months’ home detention and 100 hours’ community work last year in the North Shore District Court.
“It is clear that your involvement was significantly more serious than his, in fact I regard it as an aggravating factor that you enlisted him in this criminal enterprise,” Judge Collins told Smith.
Justice Jagose seemingly agreed today and said, “Smith appears to be the lead antagonist and enlisted Barker”.
However, the High Court judge told Smith’s relieved parents that he would grant their son’s appeal and sentenced him to 11 months’ home detention.
Justice Jagose added that “covert use of new technologies to break the law has its own level of sophistication”.
As part of the new sentence, the Crown also sought a special condition to allow police to access and search Smith’s computer for dark net activity.
Smith and Barker’s arrests had come as part of a major police and Customs operation, revealed by the Herald last year. Detectives had discovered wealthy Kiwi teens buying illicit drugs off the dark web.
In court documents released to the Herald, police said the rise in dark net imports through the international mail system “can be attributed to the advent of the underground global marketplace through what is known as the ‘dark web’.”
“A comprehensive range of controlled drugs are available, often at prices far cheaper than commonly found on the New Zealand domestic market.”
Bitcoin, police specifically identified, was a common purchasing tool and was what Smith was using to source the drugs.
Smith’s dark net ‘criminal enterprise’
Smith’s offending first began in October 2015. It was also his last year at Albany Senior High School, on Auckland’s North Shore.
During that month an item of mail from Canada was intercepted at the International Mail Centre at Auckland International Airport.
It contained 80 tabs of lysergic acid and was addressed to Smith’s parents’ home.
Customs noted the address and alerted police.
The following year, Smith asked Barker if he could use his family home as a destination for his dark net imports.
He offered his mate $200 per successfully delivered package.
It is unknown how many items of mail containing illegal drugs slipped through to the pair’s homes, but on June 2, 2016 mail from Germany containing amphetamine sulphate was stopped at the border.
It was destined for Barker’s home.
Then in October 2016, more mail arrived from Poland addressed to Barker’s home. The package contained 760 tabs of lysergic acid and a sheet of blotter paper laced with fentanyl.
Police, well into its investigation by this time, raided Barker’s home in Greenhithe on November 10, 2016.
Inside the teenager’s bedroom officers found lysergic acid and a drug known by its street name “DOM” (2,5-Dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine).
That same day Smith’s home was searched, shocking his parents - who were seemingly unaware of their son’s shadowy online and criminal activity.
Police found in Smith’s room a set of scales, items of mail originating in Portugal, a small amount of methamphetamine, liquid drugs and lysergic acid.
Also found were several documents showing Smith had invested in bitcoin.
Smith’s cellphone was also seized and text messages showed Smith talking to prospective buyers and giving his advice and experience about the drugs on his menu.
Smith’s texts, seen by the Herald, also show a discount for bulk sales.
When arrested by police, he refused to make a statement.