Court questions why there was no DUI charge in recent prosecution
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — It was during the sentencing of a 29-year-old man convicted of stealing a vehicle while he was intoxicated that the Court stated that any time a person is intoxicated and drives a vehicle on the road, the vehicle becomes a deadly weapon.
Vena Taulaga, who had been in custody since his arrest last year, unable to post a $10,000 surety bond appeared in High Court last week for sentencing.
Taulaga was initially charged with one count of first degree burglary and one count of stealing, both class C felonies, punishable by imprisonment of up to 7 years, a $5,000 fine or, pursuant to A.S.C.A 46.2101, a fine equal to twice the amount of gain from the commission of said crime, up to a maximum of $20,000, or both such fine and imprisonment.
Under a plea agreement with the government, accepted by the court in August of this year, Taulaga pled guilty to stealing. By his guilty plea, Taulaga admits that on Sept. 29, 2020, he stole a vehicle belonging to another person without that person’s permission.
When given the chance to address the court, Taulaga apologized for his action and immediately begged for a second chance to return home to be with his mother and do something good for his family. Taulaga told the court that it was really tough for him to be in prison for many months.
The defense attorney told the court that his client is a young man who has shown true remorse for his action. Despite the seriousness of his client’s action, defense attorney told the court that his client had no intention to hurting anybody, however, the defendant knows for sure that the victim was stressed when he woke up in the next morning and saw that his vehicle was gone.
The defense attorney told the court that his client is a suitable candidate for a probated sentencing without any additional period of detention.
The prosecutor echoed the defense’s submission and asked the court to adopt the recommendation by Probation contained in the Pre Sentence Report (PSR).
In delivering its decision, the Court said that Taulaga’s conviction stems from an incident after the defendant’s drinking session with friends, when he then took a vehicle unlawfully. That person is the defendant’s aunt’s ex-boyfriend.
The defendant is a first offender and according to the PSR, he is an individual who had a really steady upbringing where he completed high school and was also employed. The report goes on to say the defendant is an individual who received some sort of parental counsel to teach him right from wrong. Nevertheless, this is a serious incident.
One thing the court was trying to understand was why Taulaga was never charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Every time you are intoxicated and operate a vehicle on the road, the vehicle becomes a deadly weapon, the court said.
He said that this is the first time a defendant caught by police driving under the influence was never charged. The court said that someone could have died because of this defendant’s action on the night of the incident. The court wanted to know the reason why there was no report about the defendant being intoxicated when he was pulled over by police.
The prosecutor told the court that the reason is included in paragraph 8 of the police affidavit, saying, “According to the defendant, he and his friend were intoxicated after a drinking session with his friend in Nu’uuli where they then walked to Malaeimi.” It was later that they went to the victim’s home and saw the vehicle parked on the side of his house.
The defendant’s friend continued on walking while the defendant turned to the victim’s house and knocked on the door. According to the defendant, he knew that the house belonged to his aunt’s ex-boyfriend and he wanted to go inside to get some food to eat.
Taulaga was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. Execution of the sentence was suspended and Taulaga was placed on probation for 5 years subject to several conditions.
Taulaga is ordered to pay a fine of $2,000 within the first 6 months of his probation, and attend and complete alcohol counseling coordinated by the Probation office.
He was sentenced to serve 20 months at the TCF and credited for the 13 months he already served. The balance of the detention was stayed until further order of the court. Taulaga was released from detention forthwith.
“Mr. Taulaga, once you are arrested and charged, you’re just like many other defendants in our eyes. We don’t care who you are and which family you’re from,” the court told Taulaga.
If he violates any conditions of his probation, Taulaga was informed by the court that he would receive the same treatment like all other defendants, where the court will revoke his probation.
Probation review is set for May 25, 2022.
The government claims that on Sept. 29, 2020 around 3:05a.m, the Central Police Station received a phone call from the Tafuna Police Substation, informing them that a man called the 911 Emergency lines reporting his vehicle had been stolen from his home.
After speaking to the victim, investigators radioed to all police units on the road to look for the vehicle, and when found to impound it at a nearby police station.
The victim also stated to police that he had items still in his vehicle such as a black backpack and personnel items including an iPhone, a laptop and a camera.
According to the victim, he was having a good time with friends outside of his house on the night of the incident and when he went to sleep, he not only didn’t lock his vehicle, but also left the car key inside the vehicle.
As a result, the defendant was able to get into the vehicle and drive away..
The vehicle was seen speeding on the highway around 4:20 a.m in the Tafuna area, heading east. It was stopped, and the driver cited for speeding. When asked who owned the vehicle, the defendant told officers the vehicle belong to “Uncle J” and he’s using it to transport his grandma to the hospital for that week because his vehicle is in the mechanic shop.
While police were looking for the vehicle, the victim contacted the Tafuna Police Substation (TPS) saying he had reviewed the footage from the surveillance camera outside of his house and it was clear that his nephew Vena from Ottoville was the person who came to his house and stole his vehicle.
The victim further stated to police that he contacted his nephew’s aunt on the phone and the aunt confirmed to him that his vehicle was parked at their house in Ottoville.
Around 6:50 a.m on the same morning, police went to the defendant’s house and observed the stolen vehicle parked at the side of the house.
The vehicle was transported to the TPS for further investigation while the defendant was apprehended and also transported to the TPS for questioning.
According to the defendant’s statement to investigators, he and his friends were intoxicated after their drinking session at a friend’s house in Nu’uuli. On their way to Malaeimi, he observed the victim’s vehicle was parked outside of the house and the window was down. He decided to check on the vehicle to see if there was any money inside.
He got there and noticed the vehicle’s key inside. The defendant got into the vehicle and started it, then drove where he dropped off his friend in Iliili before heading home.
(It’s unclear if Taulaga is a nephew to the defendant or if the defendant is Taulaga’s aunt’s boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.)