Drug offender saved from deportation by having a “wife & children”
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Associate Justice Fiti Sunia has given a man from Samoa, convicted of violating local drug laws a chance to renew his immigration status that has expired or he will sit in jail until it is.
Fala Ah Chong, who has been in custody since his arrest, unable to post a $5,000 bond appeared in High Court this week for sentencing. He was represented by Assistant Public Defender Rob McNeill while prosecuting the case was Assistant Attorney General Laura Garvey.
Ah Chong was originally charged with one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance, to wit; marijuana, a felony punishable by not less than five or more than ten years in jail, and a fine of not less than $5,000 or more than $20,000, or both.
However, in a plea agreement with the government, accepted by the court last month, Ah Chong pled guilty to the amended charge of unlawful possession of marijuana. With his guilty plea, Ah Chong admits that in the beginning of this year, police found a small baggie containing marijuana leaves inside his pocket.
When given the chance to address the court, Ah Chong apologized for his action and begged for another chance to go back home to provide for his family. He told the court that he learnt his lesson while in prison and now realizes that breaking the law is not a good thing to do, especially when you’re a man with wife and children.
Both parties — defense and prosecution — recommended probation.
Defense attorney McNeill told the court that Ah Chong is a family man who works hard to provide for his wife and young children. McNeill further stated to the court that his client has worked as a mechanic for many years.
Attorney for the government echoed the defense attorney’s statement and requested the court to adopt the recommendation by the Probation Office.
Before the court deliberated on a decision, the court wanted to hear from the DPS Evidence room custodian, Off. Zenobia Jennings about the evidence that was seized by police officers when the defendant was initially arrested.
Off. Jennings presented the court with a sealed plastic baggie containing a small baggie with marijuana leaves inside. After reviewing the evidence, Sunia then ordered the court marshal to return the evidence to the evidence room custodian.
Off. Jennings informed the court about the process for disposing of evidence from criminal cases, which includes an order of the court to dispose it in the presence of the marshal of the court.
A recess was then called.
In delivering his decision, Sunia said that the defendant’s conviction stems from an incident where police officers were called to a public peace disturbance case in the Tafuna area where some men were engaged in fights and drinking. The defendant was one of the men engaging in the fights.
Police officers searched the defendant and discovered a small plastic baggie in his possession containing green marijuana leaves.
Sunia said that after reviewing the evidence, the court is satisfied that it was for personal use. He said that the defendant has a prior criminal record in District Court including public peace disturbance and similar offenses.
The court believes that the defendant is a family man who works hard to provide for his wife and young children. He was gainfully employed in the territory and contributed to the community. Prior to the defendant’s arrest, his immigration status was valid but expired during his detention.
According to the court, it’s almost every week that the court is facing this task of sentencing individuals who violated local drug laws including the defendant. Despite the fact that the quantity of marijuana found on the defendant was for personal used, the court believe that the law the Fono passed clearly stated that anybody convicted for violating local drug laws must be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment.
The court does not have the authority to consider a lighter sentence based on the quantity that was found during the crime.
Ah Chong was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and fined $2,000.
Execution of sentence was suspended and Ah Chong was placed on probation for 5 years subject to several conditions he must comply with, including serving 20 months at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF), and will be credited for the 3 months and 25 days he has already served while awaiting sentencing. The court deferred all but 6 months, meaning, Ah Chong needs to actually serve 3 months and 5 days at TCF.
The defendant was also ordered to renew his immigration status before he’s released from detention, otherwise, he will remain inside TCF, until that is the case.