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Another traffic stop that became a drug bust

American Samoa High Court building
One man sentenced, the other faces sentencing next month

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A 55-year-old man convicted of violating the local drug laws is going to jail. The court sentenced Albert Amataga to serve 20 months at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF), as a condition of his 5 years probation.

Amataga appeared in High Court last week for sentencing.

Amataga was initially charged with one court of unlawful possession of methamphetamine (meth), a felony punishable by not less than 5 years and not more than 10 years imprisonment, or a fine of not less than $5,000 and not more than $20,000.

However, under a plea agreement with the government, which was accepted by the Court two months ago, the defendant pled guilty to the amended lesser felony charge of unlawful drug possession.

With his guilty plea, the defendant admits that on Nov. 23rd, 2020 he possessed two glass pipes containing meth, and a stamp sized baggie containing meth residue.

According to terms of the plea agreement, Amataga was a passenger inside a vehicle when police pulled it over during a traffic stop for displaying the wrong license plate. The driver of the vehicle was later identified by police as Luteru Fitu, who is a co-defendant in this matter.

When police approached the vehicle, they saw Amataga trying to reach into the back seat, in an effort to hide something from officers. Nothing was found inside the vehicle when police searched it, but when they searched Amataga’s body, they discovered two glass pipes containing meth in his pant’s pocket.

When given the chance to address the court, Amataga apologized for his action and asked the court for another chance to go back home to care for his family. He told the court that he’s truly remorseful for his action and he would never violate the local drug laws in the future.

Speaking about the 12 and half months he spent in the TCF, Amataga told the court that he learned a lot of good lessons while living in prison, knowing that staying away from his family is something that should never happen in his life. However, it was carelessness that caused him to be apart from his family. He then asked the court to grant him another chance so that he can change his life and seek gainful employment to pay his fine.

The defense attorney asked the court to adopt the recommendation by the Pre Sentence Report (PSR) and sentence his client to probation without serving any additional imprisonment term.

The defense attorney also stated that his client had spent more than 12 months at the TCF unable to post bond. He takes full responsibility for his actions and he’s also truly remorseful for what he did. He also stated that his client had a prior conviction in District Court over ten years ago.

Moreover, the defense attorney told the court that his client has a drug problem and there is a need to address his problem so that he is able to overcome it. He said Amataga will continue to be addicted to drugs if nothing is done to address it.

The only way to address Amataga’s drug addiction, according to the defense attorney, is to give him a second chance, and allow him to attend a substance abuse counseling program, which will give him the chance to regroup and move forward with his life.

The prosecutor agreed with the defense attorney’s submission and asked the court to adopt the PSR recommendation and sentence the defendant to probation.

She said the government believes the defendant is a suitable candidate for a probated sentence, because the quantity of meth found in his possession was very small and it was for personal use.

The court asked the prosecutor what the government really wants to do to address the defendant’s drug problem. Moreover, it also wanted to know whether the government can provide any counseling programs to address his problem.

The government’s attorney told the court that there are drug counseling programs available through the Department of Human & Social Service (DHSS).

Moreover, the prosecutor told the court that the 12 and a half months Amataga has already served in the TCF is enough detention in this matter.

The court stated that drug offenders appearing before the court is not something new, especially drivers whose vehicles are pulled over by police officers during traffic stops where later drugs are discovered inside their vehicle or even in their possession.

Despite the arguments from both attorneys that the quantity of drugs found in the defendant’s possession was small, the court pointed out that 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 a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years and not more than 10 years.

“Regardless of how much is found in a defendant’s possession, unlawful possession of illegal drugs is a very serious offense in American Samoa,” the court pointed out.

The court also pointed out that the court was struck by the PSR, which stated that this defendant has special skills that are really needed in American Samoa. According to the court, the defendant is a certified mechanic who can earn good money.

Amataga was sentenced to five years in jail and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine; however, the execution of the sentence was suspended and the defendant was placed on five years probation with the condition that he serves 20 months at the TCF, not possess any illegal drugs or consume any alcohol and he is subject to random drugs and alcohol testing.

The court ordered that the defendant serve 13 months of his period of detention, including the 12 and a half months he has already served in TCF, and the remaining 7 and a half months will be stayed until further orders of the court.

He is also banned from entering any bars, taverns or businesses that sell alcohol, and he is not to congregate with people who are dealing illegal drugs or consuming alcohol.

“Amataga, you need to stop doing mechanic work at home and go and find a job where you can get paid,” the court told the defendant.

The court’s last message to the defendant was, “If you choose to continue smoking ice, it’s up to you, but we will make sure you will serve the suspended period of your sentence of 5 years. However, if you choose to abide with these orders, we may choose to reduce the period of your probation. So, the choice is now yours.”

Co-defendant, Fitu also appeared in court last week for his Change of Plea hearing. Fitu, who has been in custody since his arrest, unable to post a $5,000 bond was initially charged with unlawful possession of marijuana and unlawful possession of meth, both felonies.

However, under a plea agreement with the government, also accepted by the court last week, Fitu pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful possession of meth, a class D felony, punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to five years, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.

With his guilty plea, Fitu admits that on Nov. 23rd, he unlawfully possessed a glass pipe containing meth.

During the investigation of the matter, Fitu told police that it was Amataga who gave him the glass pipe to keep when he picked Amataga up from a store in Vaitogi.

On their way home to Tafuna, his vehicle was pulled over for a traffic violation. During a body search, cops found a glass pipe containing meth in his pocket.

Fitu is scheduled to appear in court next month for sentencing.