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Another drug case gets thrown out

[SN file photo]
Judge believes illegal drugs were found only due to illegal traffic stop

District Court Judge Fiti Sunia dismissed another drug case this week, after the court found no probable cause to bind the case against Methodist Kuka Mika over to the High Court.

The court believes the police officers' search of Mika during a traffic stop last month was unlawful, and violated the defendant’s constitutional rights under local law.

Mika had been in custody since his arrest last month, unable to post a $5,000 surety bond; Judge Sunia released him after the case was dismissed.

Prosecuting the case was Assistant Attorney General Christy Dunn, while Assistant Public Defender Ryan Nelson represented Mika.

Dismissal came during the preliminary examination hearing held this week to determine if there was probable cause to bind Mika’s case over to the High Court. Lead investigator, Lt. Tolia Solaita Jr. was the only witness the government called to testify during yesterday’s hearing.

According to Solaita Jr., it was on Sept. 12th while the Vice & Narcotics Unit was conducting a traffic stop in the Iliili area that a vehicle was pulled over for a loud muffler. He said there were two people inside the vehicle — the driver, who was identified as Siera Isaia and the defendant, who was in the passenger seat.

The two men were charged separately with one count each of unlawful possession of a controlled substance, to wit, methamphetamine. Isaia’s case has already been bound over to the High Court.

Solaita Jr. told the court that after the vehicle was pulled over, Captain Lima Togia, who heads the Vice and Narcotics Unit, approached the driver while he approached the passenger side and had a conversation with the defendant.

The witness said he knew Mika personally because he had worked with him before. According to him, while he was speaking to Mika, a K-9 dog was conducting a sniff search around the vehicle, and when the dog alerted to a possible presence of illegal drugs inside the vehicle, that's when he asked Mika to step outside and the defendant agreed.

Once Mika exited the vehicle, Det. Johnny Paselio went over and spoke to him, while Capt. Togia was speaking to the driver who was standing on the other side — both watching as the K-9 was conducting a sniff search of the vehicle.

Paselio asked Mika if he could conduct a body search and the defendant agreed.

It was during the body search that a glass pipe and a plastic baggie with a white substance were found inside the right pocket of the defendant’s pants. The white substance tested positive for methamphetamine.

According to the witness, when questioned by police, Mika admitted that the glass pipe and the plastic baggie belonged to him.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Nelson asked the witness how many police units and police officers were involved in the search that led to his client being arrested. Nelson also wanted to know who makes the determination that a muffler is too loud, which is why police officers pulled over the vehicle that Mika was riding in.

Solaita Jr. told the court that it was Capt. Togia who made the call — regarding the loud muffler — and there were 3 police units and 6 cops present during the search.

Nelson asked the witness to describe how loud the muffler was, and if he ever received any special training to determine how such sound is illegal under local traffic laws.

Solaita Jr. responded that although he has not received any special training on how to determine if a muffler is loud or not, one can tell the difference if you compare the sound of one vehicle’s muffler to another.

During her final submission, prosecutor Dunn argued that the main reason why the vehicle that Mika was riding in was pulled over by police was because the vehicle’s muffler made an unusual noise that caught their attention.

And when a body search was conducted, a glass pipe and a plastic baggie was found in his pants’ pocket, which he later admitted to owning.

Defense attorney Nelson argued that the action by police officers violated his client’s constitutional rights, under American Samoa law. Although the government argued that Mika consented to the search, Nelson said the search was illegal.

Nelson told the court that the government’s main witness never received special training to determine how loud a vehicle's muffler should be.

Before handing down his decision, Judge Sunia recalled a drug case that was filed by the government — and later dismissed by the court — against Sio Godinet a few months ago.

Sunia said that after a PX hearing in Godinet’s case, the court felt that the search of his vehicle was an organized traffic stop, and what happened in Godinet’s case was the same thing that happened in Mika’s case — involving 3 police units, 6 cops and a K-9 dog.             A sniff search by the K-9 was conducted and a glass pipe was recovered from Godinet’s vehicle, which caused the government to charge him with a felony.

Sunia said the reason why Godinet’s case was dismissed, was because the court believed the traffic stop by police officers which led to the criminal case against him was an organized search for illegal substances, which violated the constitutional rights of the defendant, and it's the same situation in Mika’s case.

The court said the vehicle Mika was riding in, was involved in another traffic stop two weeks before the Sept. 12th search, and the same captain and police officers were involved in both traffic stops.

For the purpose of the second traffic stop, the court assumes that the captain and his police units had suspicions that there were illegal drugs inside the vehicle and without the traffic stop, the court feels the government would never have charged Mika.

The court made it clear that Mika’s case is different from Isaia’s case — which has already been bound over to High Court — as Isaia was the driver of the vehicle, and the search of Isaia was independent.

He was ordered by police to pull his hand out from his pocket but he refused, and started to move around which caused police to worry about their safety, and resulted in the cops taking him down and searching him.

During the search, illegal drugs were allegedly found in his possession.

In Mika’s case, said the judge, despite the government’s argument that he consented to a body search, the court feels that the search arose from a traffic stop, which was based on the suspicion that the vehicle contained illegal drugs.