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50-yr-old man is sentenced for drug possession

American Samoa High Court building
Lawyers say the quantity was small — court says it’s still a serious offense

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A 50-year-old man convicted of drug possession is going to jail. Amataga Alatasi has been sentenced to serve 20 months at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF), as a condition of his 5-year probation.

Alatasi appeared in High Court last week for sentencing. He has been in custody since his arrest last year, unable to post a $5,000 surety bond. Alatasi was initially charged with one court of unlawful possession of meth, a felony punishable by 5-10 years in jail, or a $5,000- $20,000 fine.

Under a plea agreement with the government, accepted by the court two months ago, Alatasi pled guilty to the amended felony charge of unlawful drug possession. With his guilty plea, Alatasi admits that on Mar. 19, 2019 he had 2 glass pipes containing meth, and a stamp sized baggie containing meth residue.

Alatasi was a passenger of a vehicle police pulled over during a traffic stop for displaying the wrong license plate. The driver was later identified as Luteru Filiga, the co-defendant in this case. When police approached the vehicle, they saw Alatasi trying to hide something in the back seat. No contraband was found during a search of the vehicle; but 2 glass pipes containing meth were discovered in Alatasi’s pants pocket.

When given time to address the court, Alatasi apologized; asked for a chance to return home to care for his family; and said he’s truly remorseful. He said he’s learned his lesson and it was his carelessness that caused him to be separated from his family. He asked for another chance so he can change his life and find a job to pay his fine.

Defense attorney Rob McNeill asked the court to adopt the recommendation in the Pre Sentence Report (PSR) and give Alatasi probation without any additional jail time. He said his client has a prior conviction in District Court — from over 10 years ago — and Alatasi has a drug problem that needs to be addressed.

And the only way to address that drug problem, said McNeill, is to give Alatasi a second chance, and allow him to attend a substance abuse counseling program. Prosecutor Laura Garvey agreed with McNeill, saying Alatasi is a suitable candidate for a probated sentence, because the quantity of meth that was found on him was very small and for personal use, and the time he’s spent in pretrial confinement is enough punishment.

According to the court, the issue with drugs offenders — specifically those who get busted when their vehicles are pulled over during traffic stops — is not new. And despite arguments from both sides that the quantity of drugs found on Alatasi was small, according to the statute that was passed by the Fono, a person convicted of unlawful possession of illegal drugs — of any quantity — can be sentenced to jail anywhere between 5-10 years, the court pointed out. “Regardless of how much was found on the defendant, unlawful possession of illegal drugs is a very serious offense in American Samoa.”

Alatasi was sentenced to 5 years in jail and a $2,000 fine. Execution of sentence is suspended and he is placed on 5 years probation on the condition that he serve 20 months at the TCF, and remain alcohol and drug free. He will only serve 8 months, with credit for time served. The remaining 12 months is stayed until further order of the court.

Alatasi is banned from entering any bars, taverns, or businesses that serve alcohol, and he is not to congregate with people who are doing drugs or drinking.

“If you choose to continue to smoke ice, it’s up to you; but we will make sure you will serve the suspended period of your sentence (5 years). However, if you choose to abide with these orders, we may reduce the period of your probation. So, the choice is now yours,” the court advised Alatasi.