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Chief Justice Kruse takes a new turn in sentencing for drug offender

Chief Justice Michael Kruse [SN file photo]
Calls drug abuse a “medical problem”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — “… the sellers, the manufacturers and many other people should be filling the jail, not sick people.”  This was the message from Chief Justice Michael Kruse, who says the executive and legislature branches need to hear that drug abuse is a medical problem. This came as the court delivered its sentence for Methodist Kuka Mika who was convicted of unlawful possession of a controlled substance, to wit; methamphetamine.

The 24-year-old man who was arrested by police on Dec. 31, 2017 for violating local drug laws pled guilty in court.

Mika was initially charged with unlawful possession of controlled substances, to wit; methamphetamine, and marijuana — both class D felonies.

However, under a plea agreement with the government, Mika pled guilty to the meth charge and admits that on the night in question, he was in possession of a glass pipe that contained meth.

A former firefighter for the Department of Public Safety, Mika apologized to the court for his actions and asked for another chance to go back home to care for his 83-year-old mother and his siblings who depended on him before he was taken into custody.

His attorney, deputy public defender Michael White told the court that his client has a drug addiction problem and he understands that he has to change his life. He then asked the court to give his client another chance to prove himself and allow him to go back home to care for his family.

White asked for a probated sentence without any period of detention. He also asked for a chance to allow his client to attend any drug abuse-counseling program on island, to help with his drug addiction problem.

Prosecutor, assistant attorney general Woodrow Pengelly echoed White’s submission for a probated sentence.

Pengelly told the court that drug addiction is an issue that is really hard to overcome. He said the defendant takes full responsibly for his action and he showed that through his early submission to the charges against him.

“The 4 months he served in jail taught him a good lesson and also gave him an opportunity to make changes in his life. This is also a wake up call for him and his involvement in drugs was for personal use,” Pengelly said. He further stated that the 4 months the defendant served at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF) was a sufficient period of detention for him.

Before the Judges went into deliberation, Kruse reminded both attorneys of statements he had made in previous cases — that addiction is a medical problem, but there are very few resources on island to combat the problem.

“More often as we have noticed in most of the recent drug cases, we see drug offenders parading in court almost every week. They appear, are charged and plead guilty and the tradition is sentencing them to jail and or a fine, or both,” Kruse said.

“We need more resources not only for the users but more resources to deal with the supplies.

“He (Mika) was in law enforcement before he was put in jail and he’s now no longer useful to his family anymore. He will have to wait until next the available opportunity comes. Sometimes, somebody must be realistic about the drug problem we have on island,” the Chief Justice said.

After deliberating with Chief Associate Judge Mamea Sala Jr for almost ten minutes, Kruse said they called on the Chief Probation officer to tell them more about the counseling program on island.

“What caught my attention during our discussion was that most of these drug offenders who come back before the court for probation revocation, were those who have completed the counseling program. So, that is some indication we need more resources,” Kruse said.

“Jail is simply not the answer. Jail is only a place to be separated from where the drug problem is, but the defendant has a choice whether he wants to cure the drug addiction problem or not.”

Mika was sentenced to 5-year imprisonment and a fine of $5,000. His imprisonment sentence was suspended and he was placed on probation for a period of 5 years under certain conditions.

The court ordered Mika to serve 20 months at TCF and he was credited with the 4 months he has already served. The execution of the remaining 16 months was stayed as follows; 10 months of the detention shall be served commencing Apr. 20, 2019, while the last 6 months of detention shall be served commencing July 1st, 2020.

Kruse said that detention would be served down the line not upfront as is usual, and the court will re-visit the probation during this time to ascertain whether the defendant is in compliance with probation. With respect to the fine, all but $3,000 is suspended with $2,000 payable forthwith.

Other conditions include no possession or consumption of drugs and alcohol, and the defendant shall submit himself to random testing to make sure he’s staying clean throughout the period of probation.

“This is a medical problem and you need to medically explain it to the executive branch and the legislature branch. Government, the underlining problem is that, the sellers, the manufacturers and many other people should be filling up the jail, not sick people,” Kruse said. He then instructed the prison guard who escorted the inmates into court to take the defendant back to TCF, process and release him.

This is the second time police officers have arrested Mika for unlawful possession of illegal drugs.

In the first case, District Court Judge Fiti Sunia dismissed it after the court found no probable cause to bind the case over to High Court, after a preliminary examination on Oct. 22, 2017, found that a police search conducted during a traffic stop on Sept. 12, 2017 was unlawful, and violated the defendant’s constitutional rights under local laws.

In that incident, cops from the DPS Vice & Narcotics Unit who were conducting a traffic stop in the Iliili area pulled over a vehicle for having a loud muffler. There were two people inside the vehicle — the driver, identified as Sierra Isaia, and Mika, who was in the passenger seat. Illegal drugs were found on both suspects following a police search.

Chief Associate Judge Mamea Sala accompanied Kruse in handing down the court’s sentence in Mika’s case.