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Latest drug case questions motives of police officers

[SN file photo]
Defendant was pulled over for a loud muffler and a body search nets drugs

A drug case involving an Ili'ili man has been bound over to the High Court, after District Court Judge Fiti Sunia found probable cause following a preliminary examination hearing last week.

Sonny “Mu” Kelemete is facing drug charges involving the unlawful possession of a controlled substance - methamphetamine - with the intent to distribute.

Each count is punishable by not less than 5 years imprisonment, and/or a fine of not less than $5,000 or both.

The defendant is currently out on a $30,000 surety bond.

This is one of the few cases the government has filed in court, since the Vice & Narcotics Unit was established by DPS Commissioner Le'i Sonny Thompson last month, in an effort to combat the local drug problem.

Lead investigator Justin Thomsen was the only witness the government called to testify on the stand during last Friday's hearing.

According to Thomsen, it was on Sept. 5th while the Vice & Narcotics Unit was conducting traffic patrol in the Iliili area that they saw the defendant's car pulling over in from of Iakina Adventist Academy School.

It was the loud noise coming from Kelemete's car muffler that got the attention of police, and caused them to pull Kelemete over for questioning.

According to witness testimony, three police units, seven police officers, and a K-9 dog were at  the scene when Kelemete’s vehicle was pulled over.

Capt. Lima Togia, head of the Vice & Narcotics Unit approached the defendant while he was sitting inside of his car, and explained to him the reason why he was being stopped - because of the loud noise from his vehicle muffler.

According to Thomsen’s testimony, Kelemete seemed unhappy and complained to Capt. Togia that there was nothing wrong with his muffler.

Judge Sunia intervened and asked the witness what specifically about the muffler had caused police to stop Kelemete’s vehicle.

Thomsen responded that the unusual sound from the muffler is illegal, under traffic laws, and it seemed like the defendant added an additional piece to the muffler to produce that unusual sound.

After the defendant was informed about why he was stopped, he was asked by Capt. Togia to step outside of the vehicle which, according to Thomsen, is a usual police procedure. 733-0078 699-2120

Assistant Attorney General Christy Dunn asked the witness about the defendant's demeanor when he was told to step outside of his vehicle. Thomsen said Kelemete acted normal, and his behavior did not concern them.

But it was when Det. Paselio touched the defendant’s shoulder trying to calm him down, telling him there was nothing to worry about, that Kelemete's behavior changed, moving his shoulder and telling Det. Paselio, “don’t touch me.”

Thomsen told the court that the change in Kelemete's behavior was quick and became a concern, causing him to tackle the defendant to the ground to stop him from running away. The defendant was then placed under arrest.

K-9 units who were present conducted a sniff search of the vehicle, while Capt. Togia was speaking to the defendant. A few moments later, the canine alerted to the driver's side door which gave police probable cause to search the inside of the vehicle and also the defendant.

Sunia intervened and asked the witness why they arrested Kelemete. Thomsen said the arrest was based on the procedure the Vice & Narcotics Unit had followed.

Sunia asked what procedure he was referring to. Thomsen said it was the procedure set by Capt. Togia, the head of the new Unit, and they are to follow it when tracking down those who are suspected of dealing drugs on island.

Sunia wanted to know from the witness if the Vice & Narcotics Unit has a different procedure from the Police Department. Thomsen answered 'no,' it is the same procedure.

When police searched the defendant, they allegedly found 9 small baggies that contained a white substance - which tested positive as methamphetamine -  inside Kelemete's pant pocket.

Several empty baggies were also found in Kelemete's pocket, including $90 in cash.

Cross examination of the witness, centered on whether the traffic stop that led to the arrest of the defendant was conducted fairly according to police rules and procedures, and whether the unusual sound of the defendant’s vehicle muffler was the main reason that caused police to pull him over.

The government alleges that drugs and money were found in the defendant’s possession, which resulted in the charges against him.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Assistant Public Defender Kate Hannaher asked the witness why there were three police units with several police officers and a K-9 unit present, when her client’s vehicle was pulled over.

Thomsen said it was part of their ongoing traffic patrol that day, and the defendant’s vehicle was not the only vehicle they stooped that day.

Hannaher asked the witness about the primary job of the Vice & Narcotics Unit. Thomsen responded their primary job is to track down those who are dealing with drugs around the island.

Hannaher asked the witness again, if the main reason why they pulled over her client’s vehicle was to look for drugs, but not because of the unusual sound of his vehicle’s muffler. Thomsen responded no. He said the unusual noise from the muffler was the main reason why Kelemete’s vehicle was pulled over.

During her final submission before Judge Sunia rendered his decision, prosecutor Dunn argued that the main reason why the defendant’s vehicle was pulled over by police - was because his vehicle’s muffler made an unusual noise that caught the attention of police officers.

Hannaher on the other hand told the court that the main reason why her client’s vehicle was stopped was because they suspected he was dealing drugs.

Sunia, in the end, found probable cause to support both counts against the defendant, and the case has been bound over to the High Court, where Kelemete is scheduled to appear for arraignment today at 9 a.m.

In addition to drug charges, Kelemete was also served with several traffic citations.