Report from Antrim Crown Court – Man spared jail in major drugs find. Madden & Finucane represent Paul Lemon.

A man who allowed his garage to be used as a “safe house” for cannabis worth almost £580,000 was spared jail on Thursday.

Paul Robert Lemon kissed and hugged family members after a judge handed him a 12-month prison sentence, which was suspended for three years, for his inadvertent role in a UK-wide drug ring.

The 54-year-old had admitted allowing a friend to use the garage at his home in Crumlin to package 31kg of cannabis in September 2013.

However, Antrim Crown Court was told Lemon was unaware of what was happening until a very late stage and that he had been “used” by his co-accused, Noel Phillip Morrison.

Passing sentence, Judge Desmond Marrinan said Lemon’s role was “not at the heart, or nowhere near at the heart of what occurred”.

He said Morrison had “somewhat cynically” decided to misuse his friendship with Lemon in order to make use of his garage “as what criminals call a safe house”.

He continued: “It is clear there doesn’t appear to be any suggestion you had any prior knowledge or planning in what appears to have been a significant operation by a well organised gang.

“Your fault, criminal not just moral fault, was to allow him to use your premises, or to put it another way, not to chase him once you discovered what was happening.

“I have come to the view that this offence is serious enough that immediate custody would be appropriate.

“However, to do so would impose great hardship and misery on your innocent family.”

As a result, Judge Marrinan told Lemon he would spare him jail as “an act of mercy” to his family, including his 10-year-old daughter, elderly parents and his wife who suffers from a severely debilitating medical condition.

Meanwhile, the judge postponed sentencing of 52-year-old Morrison until next week after hearing evidence that he was working as part of a UK-wide drug ring and was not the “Mr Big” figure in the scheme.

The court was told Morrison, 52, has claimed he was acting under duress and had been forced to handle the cannabis by a paramilitary organisation.

The father of one, who is on remand at Maghaberry Prison but who has an address in Lambeg, was on licence for a previous drugs offence when he was caught with the cannabis in September 2013.

He was jailed for possession of 400 cannabis plants at Newry Crown Court in February 2012.

A defence lawyer on Thursday told the court Morrison claimed he was forced to grow the plants by a paramilitary organisation, which subsequently blamed him for their seizure by police.

She said Morrison was forced to work for them again as payment for this and was not a major player in the latest case.

However, prosecution counsel Neil Connor QC asked Judge Marrinan to approach Morrison’s claims “with deep scepticism”.

He pointed to the fact Morrison made no comment during police interview and had only claimed he was under threat at a late stage of legal proceedings.

He said it also contradicted comments made by Morrison during the previous drugs case, in which he said he did it for financial gain.

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