New Zealand Law Society - Some cases where matchboxes played a part

Some cases where matchboxes played a part

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Cocaine in the matchbox

Police were called to Willie Gatlin’s Florida residence after an argument between him and his girlfriend. He was charged with battery and arrested. Gatlin was only partially dressed and put on a pair of trousers which had been lying next to his bed before being led to the police car. On arrival at the car he was searched and several pieces of crack cocaine were found in a matchbox in his trouser pocket. At his trial for possession of a controlled substance, Gatlin attempted a number of explanations as to how the matchbox got in his pocket. These conflicted with evidence given by the police and his girlfriend. “If a person has exclusive possession of a thing, knowledge of its presence may be inferred or assumed,” the jury was told, and Gatlin was found guilty. On appeal to the Florida District Court of Appeal (556 So. 2d 772), he argued that the instruction was violative of due process as it created a mandatory presumption. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The jury was free to accept or reject the inference regardless of any defence which may have been put forth, and there was no suggestion made to the jury that their factual determinations should hinge upon the presentation of evidence by the defence, it held.

The battle of the Rhinos and Elephants


Kenyan matchbox maker Match Masters Ltd developed an attractive design for its “RHINO” brand. It obtained a trademark in 1998 for the word RHINO and sold its matches in a box with “RHINO” and a rhino logo on a yellow background on the front.

The brand sold well and people started asking for a box of Rhinos when they bought matches. In 2006 a company called Rhino Matches Ltd started importing matches from Tanzania under the brand name “NDOVU” (elephant in Swahili), shown on the front with an elephant design on a yellow background. The problem was that the back of the box had a yellow background “and very prominently and in bold is the word ‘RHINO’ and in smaller letters is ‘matches Ltd’,” the High Court of Kenya stated. The court was considering Match Masters Ltd’s application for an interim injunction ([2006] eKLR). It did not accept Rhino Matches Ltd’s argument that “rhino” was an ordinary English word that could never be the subject of a trade mark, and granted the application.

The infamous “matchbox trick”

William Symms, alias George Murphy, alias William Sell, alias Charles Sweeney, alias James John Gardner, appeared in the Dunedin Resident Magistrate’s Court in April 1883. He was charged with conspiring to defraud William Agnew by what was (relatively) well-known in the 1880s in New Zealand and Australia as the “matchbox trick”. This involved showing the target an unusually-shaped matchbox and offering to bet that it could not be opened. The matchbox owner would suddenly leave the room on “urgent business” and a confederate would show the target how to open the box. The owner returns, the target eagerly takes the bet but doesn’t see another box being substituted, tries to open it and loses. Mr Agnew lost £8 to Symms and his colleague, a “red-whiskered man”, in trying unsuccessfully to open a wooden heart-shaped matchbox. The red-whiskered man remained elusive and was not brought to justice. Symms’ lawyer Alfred Catomore conducted a vigorous cross-examination of the complainant, asking questions such as “Have you ever been in the lunatic asylum?” and counselling his client to “take my advice and keep your mouth closed”. Symms himself was most concerned about the number of aliases under which he had been charged. However, he was convicted and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Just over a year later he was back in court, charged with gambling in a railway carriage by performing the “three card manouevre”. Cases involving the matchbox trick appeared regularly into the 20th century.

The lawyer, the bribe and the matchbox

Californian lawyer Barry Sands’ disbarment for professional misconduct was upheld by the Supreme Court of California (Sands v State Bar (1989) 49 Cal.3d 919). Sands was a bit too keen to dip into his clients’ funds in some personal injury actions, but the clincher came from his representation of several clients in driver’s licence suspension proceedings before Department of Motor Vehicles hearing officer Michael Tarrish. Sands took Tarrish out to lunch four times, paid for the meals and discussed matters related to his clients. He also passed Tarrish a matchbox each time. Inside was a $100 note. Tarrish later pleaded guilty to bribery, and also expressly testified that the money influenced his decisions. Sands argued strenuously that the money was “putative loans” and that Tarrish’s testimony was not worthy of credit. However, the court found that whether the money was a loan or a gift, it was a bribe in substance and effect, and while Tarrish was “not an admirable character”, he was a convincing and credible witness. Sands is no longer an attorney.

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