Man sentenced to jail time — pleads he missed court date due to his attorney
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A man who was ordered by the court to serve the remaining period of his detention of 20 months at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF) for failure to comply with conditions of his release while pending his sentencing told the court that it was his attorney’s fault that led him to miss his court hearing.
“I complied with all of your orders including my signing in at my attorney’s office, however, you know that I was not at fault for failing to appear in court during my previous hearing, it was my attorney who failed to contact me for the next hearing,” said Peniata Ala after the court handed down the defendant’s sentence.
Associate Justice Fiti Sunia stopped Ala from continuing with his statement and reminded him that he was given the opportunity to address the court on what ever matter he wanted to say before the court issued its decision. However, he decided not to say anything.
Sunia further reminded the defendant that when he appeared in court for his Change of Plea (COP) hearing in March of this year, the court advised him that he cannot withdraw his guilty plea if he doesn’t like the court’s decision. Sunia further reminded the defendant that during his COP hearing, he waived all of his rights.
Ala, who was released on his own recognizance awaiting sentencing after the court accepted his COP was initially charged with one count of unlawful possession of methamphetamine, and one count of resisting arrest, both felonies. But under a plea agreement with the government, accepted by the court, Ala pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful possession of methamphetamine, a class D felony, punishable by imprisonment of up to 5 years, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.
By his guilty plea, Ala admits that on Dec. 05, 2019, he had in his possession a small baggie containing methamphetamine. He further admits to the court that the drug found in his possession was for personal use.
Pursuant to the plea agreement, count two of resisting arrest was dismissed.
When given the chance to address the court, defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender, Rob McNeill informed the court that his client did not wish to make a statement to the court. McNeill then asked the court to sentence his client to probation and allow him to continue with his job to provide for his family and two young children.
According to McNeill, his client is working at one of the car dealerships as a mechanic.
Prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Laura Garvey echoed the defense’s statement and asked the court to adopt the recommendation by the Probation Office included inside the Pre Sentence Report (PSR).
Before Sunia handed down his decision, he stated that the defendant’s conviction stems from an incident when police officers discovered a small baggie containing methamphetamine in his possession when patrolling police officers conducted a traffic stop on the defendant’s vehicle for speeding; however, the defendant did not stop and decided to take police officers on a car chase for a few minutes before he was stopped and arrested.
The court also noted that despite the law that allows a mandatory sentence for those convicted of unlawful possession of illegal drugs, it sometimes considers the difference between drug users and dealers; and after considering the PSR, the court felt that the defendant in this matter is a drug user and a suitable candidate for a probated sentence.
Ala was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine.
Execution of the imprisonment sentence was suspended and Ala was placed on probation for 5 years subject to several conditions.
He is to serve 20 months at the TCF, and will be credited for the 2 and a half months he has already served before he was released awaiting sentencing. The court then ordered Ala to serve the remaining balance of his detention of 17 and a half months at the TCF without any release unless by order of the court.
Ala was also ordered not to consume any alcohol or illegal drugs and he’s subject to random testing to make sure he is in compliance with the alcohol and drug-free order.
The court strongly emphasized to the defendant that he must not have any contact with people who are involved in drugs and his duty is to stay away from them when they try to approach him.
Sunia said the territory is suffering and being poisoned by illegal drugs.
It was when the court asked both parties if there was anything about the sentencing the court did not address that Ala raised his hand and asked for a permission to address the court. It was then that Ala questioned his sentence, and Sunia interrupted and reminded Ala that he was given the chance to address the court, however, he wished to remain silent.
After Ala was released on his own recognizance in March when the court accepted his change plea with the government, Ala failed to appear in court when his case was called in May of this year. The court issued a bench warrant for his arrest. After an Order to Show Cause (OSC) hearing after his arrest, Ala was released pending sentencing.
During his OSC hearing, his defense attorney, McNeill admitted to the court that it was his office’s fault that caused his client to miss his hearing. McNeill further stated that the Public Defender’s office failed to inform Ala about changes to his next court date.