Man disputes drug charge — says his view was blocked when his vehicle was searched
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A 47-year-old man, convicted for drug possession over ten years ago is once again being charged with violating local drug laws after police officers discovered methamphetamine (meth) and marijuana inside his vehicle during a traffic stop in the Tafuna area three weeks ago due to the vehicle having two different license plates on it.
The government claims that on May 13th, early evening, two police officers conducted a traffic stop in front of an Asian store after officers spotted a truck with a license plate that had no paper tag (lime green sticker), heading in the opposite direction, so officers turned their police unit around and followed the vehicle.
The truck did try to elude the police officers, by speeding. It was at that point that the officers noted that the license plate on the back of the truck was different from the one they had seen in the front without the paper tag, and the license plate light was also out.
Officers requested the Dispatcher for a quick check on the status of the two license plates, with the Dispatcher stating via radio transmission that the front plate expired five years ago, while the back license plate belonged to a different vehicle.
Officers pulled over the truck and approached the driver of the vehicle to explain to him the purpose of the stop. Three adults individuals were inside the vehicle and the driver was later identified as Apineru Valaau, the defendant in this case.
Officers told Valaau the problem with his truck’s license plates, and he replied that he understood why he was being pulled over but he’s in a rush to pick up his wife from home because she’s late to work and tried to move his vehicle in an attempt to get away from officers. However, he was strongly advised by officers to turn off his vehicle and not to take the incident to the next level.
Officers allege that Valaau looked nervous and tried to reach under his seat while at the same time rolling up his vehicle window to make it hard for officers to see him from outside.
After few moments, the defendant agreed to comply with officers instructions and finally turned off his vehicle. When asked about his driver’s license, the defendant said that he forgot his license’s home. He also did not possess any photo identification to identify himself.
The two officers then impounded the vehicle and transported it to the Tafuna Police Substation, where one of the officers started issuing citations to the defendant for the traffic violations.
An inventory search was conducted by several police officers on the vehicle with Valaau present. A medium envelope was allegedly found under the driver’s seat. Opened it allegedly contained 4 cut-up straws containing white crystalline substance; 3 small stamp-sized baggies containing white crystalline substance, several empty small baggies and green leafy substances.
Officers showed the envelope to the defendant and he just shook his head left and right and said he doesn’t know anything about the envelope found inside the vehicle. He further stated to officers that he never saw the envelope when he jumped inside the vehicle.
Officers also pulled each item outside of the envelope and showed it to the defendant, who again shook his head, indicating that he didn’t know anything about it.
The officer, who discovered the envelope handed it to a senior police officer, who was present during the search. The DPS Vice and Narcotic and K9 Unit were contacted for assistance and upon arrival of two investigators from the VNU, the envelope containing the illicit substances was handed over to them.
The white crystalline substance tested positive for meth, while the green leafy substance tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
The defendant was Mirandized, which he acknowledged, and said he wished to make a verbal statement about the incident.
According to the defendant’s verbal statement to investigators, he had to borrow his uncle’s truck because his was in the shop. His uncle did tell him that the vehicle’s registration was expired.
So every time he wanted to use the vehicle for shopping he placed his own vehicle license plate number on his uncle’s vehicle so he could just go to the store and come back home but unfortunately he was stopped by police on the road and he admitted what he did was wrong.
However, Valaau objected to the way the inventory search of the truck was conducted, saying while he was present, he couldn’t see what the officers were doing inside the vehicle, including the cop that was at the driver’s side door blocked his view.
He said he was surprised when the officer that was standing by the door of the driver’s side handed an envelope to the senior police officer and the senior police officer walked over to him and asked him if he knew about the stuff and he just responded that he didn’t know. Valaau further stated to investigators that there was no envelope inside the vehicle during the whole time he used it.
Investigators interviewed the police officer who conducted the inventory search where he stated that the defendant had a clear view of the search because he was standing next to the other police officer.
Investigators also questioned a second police officer present during the inventory search, who confirmed that the defendant had a clear view of the search because he could see the defendant from the passenger door standing next to another police officer.
A third police officer also present during the search told investigators he asked the defendant what was inside the lighter socket and the defendant looked and told him that he didn’t know what was inside.
When investigators questioned the defendant again regarding the officers’ statement that he had a clear view of the search and he saw the envelope pulled from under the driver’s seat, the defendant shook his head and told investigators, “That was a lie.”
The government charged Apineru Valaau with one count of unlawful possession of meth with the intent to distribute; one count of unlawful possession of meth; one count of unlawful possession of marijuana; all unclassified felonies, punishable by imprisonment of five to ten years, a fine of up to $20,000 or both for each count; along with one count of drive under the influence of alcohol and one count of possession of open container of alcohol inside the vehicle, both misdemeanors.
Valaau made his initial appearance in court last month.
His bail is set at $10,000.