Short staffed Public Defenders Office taken to task by high court
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Assistant Public Defender Rob McNeill admitted to the court that it was his office’s fault that caused defendant Peniata Ala to miss one of his hearings before the Court. As a result, Ala was arrested last month pursuant to a court order and remanded into custody without bond.
According to McNeill, his Office, the Public Defender’s office, failed to inform Ala about changes to his trial date set by the court.
Ala, 26, accused of violating local drug laws and resisting arrest appeared in High Court last Friday for his Change of Plea (COP) hearing.
Prosecuting the case was Assistant Attorney General Doug Lowe.
Ala 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 Sept. 1, 2018, 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 is dismissed.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 1, 2020.
After the court accepted the defendant’s plea agreement, defense attorney McNeill moved the court to release his client on his own recognizance pending sentencing, to which Associate Justice Fiti Sunia asked McNeill why he wanted his client to be released from jail while awaiting sentencing.
McNeill said his client is a married man, who has a young family who need to be taken care of. Prior to his arrest, McNeill stated that his client worked as a mechanic to provide for his family. McNeill further stated that the quantity of methamphetamine found in his client’s possession was for personal use.
Sunia did not agree with the defense’s motion. He reminded McNeill that his client was released on a $2,000 cash bond after he was arrested last year. A condition of his release was to make all of his court appearances and stay in close contact with his defense attorney.
McNeill responded that his client has missed only one hearing.
Sunia fired back and asked McNeill, “Why did your client miss his court hearing?”
McNeill responded that there was a miscommunication between his office and his
“Are you telling me that the reason why your client missed his court hearing was because your office failed to do its part,” Sunia asked McNeill.
“No. I asked him why he failed to appear in court during his last hearing and he told me that he thought his jury trial is now set for May of 2020,” McNeill explained to the court.
Sunia was not satisfied with the defense attorney response. He asked McNeill to explain to the court how does his office communicate with their clients, and why the defendant did not know that his trial date was changed.
“Was a notice was given to him to inform him about changes to his trial date?” Sunia asked.
McNeill replied, “No.”
“See, that’s very simple, your office failed to do your part, right?” Sunia asked again.
McNeill, with a smile on his face, replied, “That’s correct your honor.”
According to Sunia, the court understands the problem of a staff shortage at the PD’s office, however, that does not mean it can be taken as an excuse when defendants fail to appear in court during their hearing. He said that once a person fails to appear in court for his or her hearing, the only decision by the court is to issue a bench warrant and let that person stay in custody until his/ her case is resolved.
Sunia further stated that the reason why Ala did not know about his date hearing was because his attorney never provided him notes about the new dates for his hearing.
Sunia then granted the defense’s motion to release Ala on the same $2,000 cash bond he already posted last year.
The judge reminded the defendant despite the fact that he’s released from custody awaiting sentencing, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be released after sentencing. According to Sunia, “That is not gonna happen.”
“The court agrees to release you today (last Friday) on bond that you already posted because the court feels that your attorney dropped the ball and that’s why you were taken back into custody last month,” Sunia said.
The court ordered the defendant to comply with the same conditions that were given when he was released last year, including a special condition — for the defendant to sign in at the PD’s office every Wednesday morning at 9am.
A similar incident happened a few weeks back when a man failed to appear before Chief Justice Michael Kruse for his pretrial conference hearing. As a result, Kruse issued a bench warrant, but the warrant would only be executed if the man failed to appear in court the next day.
The man, Michael Mikaele, was scheduled to appear in court last January for his Probation Review hearing. McNeill was the defense attorney in this case.
Mikaele was not in court when his case was called, and Kruse continued Mikaele’s hearing to the following day. Mikaele appeared in court the next day.
“Why did you not appear in court yesterday?” Kruse asked the defendant.
He replied, “I was not provided with a note on when my next hearing is. My attorney … informed me about my hearing yesterday.”
Kruse told McNeill that the court understands the problem of the lack of attorneys in their office. “This is not the first time this problem has happened. I know that your office is short staffed, but that’s not the court’s problem,” he said.
“Next time, it will be a sanction,” Kruse told McNeill.