Police Swapped a Cocaine Shipment with Icing Sugar – and Ruined Their Own Case

The judge found that “all the accused had done was to store, transport or carry icing sugar, which was self-evidently not an offence.”
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
cocaine package
Photo by CreativaImages, via Getty Images

An Australian man was acquitted of trafficking drugs because police intercepted the delivery of cocaine that was bound for his address and secretly swapped it with icing sugar before they arrested him – with the judge noting that it is not a crime to carry sugar.

South Australian police arrested Nathan John Ralph in early 2019 after Australian Border Force (ABF) officers detected an “anomaly” in a parcel being sent from the United Kingdom to Ralph’s apartment in Adelaide, the ABC reported. That parcel contained a hollowed-out novel, inside of which was a plastic bag containing about 99 grams of cocaine. 


In a botched attempt to arrest the would-be drug buyer without letting them actually get their hands on the drugs in the first place, police reportedly replaced the cocaine with an “inert substance” – icing sugar – and an undercover officer delivered the parcel to Ralph’s apartment. Then they waited. When Ralph eventually came by the apartment to retrieve the parcel, police pounced, trailing him to the Glen Osmond Market where they arrested him after he attempted to flee and hide the package in some bushes.

“The package hidden was the plastic bag containing the icing sugar that had been swapped out for the cocaine,” Judge Timothy Heffernan wrote in South Australia's District Court earlier this month, according to the ABC. “On the seat of his [Ralph’s] truck police located the envelope and the hollowed-out novel.”

Police attempted to charge Ralph with one count of trafficking a controlled drug. He was acquitted, however, based on the simple fact that he never actually came into contact with the illicit substance in question. Judge Heffernan wrote that there was “no case to answer,” and that in order to be found guilty Ralph "would have to have performed an act with respect to the actual substance.”

“For a completed offence, it was necessary for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had taken a step as alleged with respect to the controlled substance, not an inert substitute posing as the controlled substance," Judge Heffernan wrote. “All of the actions alleged against the accused occurred after the substitution of icing sugar for the cocaine. All the accused had done was to store, transport or carry icing sugar, which was self-evidently not an offence.”

Judge Heffernan further noted that had police charged the accused with an attempt to traffic drugs, “there would have been a case to answer on the facts” – but he had not been asked to consider the offence of attempted trafficking. 

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