Former cop sentenced in land dispute case
“Land disputes will not be tolerated as an excuse for breaking the law,” said Chief Justice Michael Kruse when handing down the sentence for John Tialavea who pled guilty to discharging a firearm in a land dispute in Amouli in 2012.
A former police officer, Tialavea was initially charged with first degree assault and unlawful use of a weapon, which were both felonies, however in a plea agreement with the government the defendant pled guilty to discharging a firearm, which was amended from the unlawful weapon use charge, while the remaining charge of assault was dismissed.
The weapon discharge count is a class A misdemeanor which is punishable with up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.
During sentencing High Chief Fuata Tagilima I’atala, the sa’o of Tialavea’s family, pleaded with the court on behalf of the entire family, including the wife and two children. Fuata said he’s known Tialavea since he was little boy, said he’s a good man, a good husband and a family man, and has good standing not only in the family but also in the village.
He went to say that Tialavea lives on communal land, and this particular piece of land is significant to the family as their ancestors have lived there. Fuata said they have lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors.
However, all of the sudden, just recently, some people came and damaged the crops that had been on the land for a very long time.
Fuata asked the court to give John a second chance to prove that he can put to good use the counseling he was given.
The defendant’s wife also took the stand and pleaded with the court to allow her husband a second chance.
The court heard that Tialavea has completed a course in anger management, and his overall demeanor is good. They also heard that through good counsel, Tialavea has learned to move away from trouble and has kept the peace re land disputes in the family.
Tialavea was apologetic for what happened and said there were times when his patience had run out dealing with the land disputes, and this land was where his ancestors had lived. He told the court that he’s getting tired of what's happening on the land and he’s come to the conclusion to just give up the land.
In tears, he apologized to the court for what happened, apologized to the Mamea’s children's, High Chief Fuata, his mother, sisters, wife and children and asked the court for another chance.
Tialavea’s attorney Sharron Rancourt said that while the incident occurred in May 2012, there was a short period of time after that the defendant was charged and he pled guilty to the charge. Rancourt pointed out that since May 2012 there have been some other troubling land circumstances, but Tialavea did not resort to violence, he kept the peace although there was tension.
She pointed to the fact that his wife testified that she’s observed he has been able to control his behavior. Rancourt noted that although the court has seen him before, they hope the court will consider the circumstances and given the support of the family, she asked that sentencing not involve jail time. She asked that he be placed on probation, under certain conditions.
(In June 2009,Tialavea, who was at that time a police officer, was charged for beating a Pago Pago man with his flashlight in front of a Pago nightclub, and for that assault he was sentenced to one year in prison.)
Assistant Attorney General Camille Philippe said this case is concerning because Tialavea has again used weapons, as he did in his previous conviction.
She asked that there be no contact between Tialavea and the complaining witnesses in this case. Kruse said the court is concerned about this matter because weapons and firearms were involved.
“Land disputes will not be tolerated as an excuse for breaking the law,” he told the court.
He said there are proper ways to deal with land disputes, because whatever was rendered in this matter “just fell on deaf ears as excuse for offending. “When I first started practice, sticks and stones used to solve land disputes fortunately today that’s no longer the case,” said Kruse. He said if the court subscribes to this, it would wear away many years of justice the court has worked hard for.
Tialavea was sentenced to one year in prison, however execution of sentence was suspended and he’s been placed on probation for two years under the condition that he serve five consecutive weekends at the Tafuna Correctional Facility.
Kruse also ordered that the defendant have a probation review every 180 days; and ordered not to possess any firearms, rifles or BB guns.
“Land disputes are not for lawlessness; I will not tolerate it,” Kruse said.
According to the plea agreement, the defendant admits that on May 12, 2012 he knowingly and unlawfully fired his shotgun within 30 yards of his house to scare the family involved off a piece of land. Defendant admits his conduct on that date was without legal justification or excuse.
According to the government’s case, police officers were informed by the woman who had contacted police that there is an ongoing land dispute between her family and the defendant. Court filings say the woman and her son were working on said land, when Tialavea allegedly shot at them to scare them away.
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