Judge Sunia lashes out at Immigration during sentencing of an overstayer
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — An overstayer from Samoa who pled guilty to meth possession is ordered to serve 20 months at the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF), as a condition of her 5-year probation sentence.
Lili Apolo — who has been in the territory illegally for 11 years — appeared in High Court yesterday morning for sentencing, which was continued from last month, because Associate Justice Fiti Sunia wanted to know more about her illegal immigration status.
Prosecuting the case was Assistant Attorney General Doug Lowe, while Assistant Public Defender Rob McNeill represented Apolo, who has been in custody since her arrest in January of this year, unable to post a $5,000 surety bond.
Apolo, a mother of 5, was initially charged with unlawful possession of methamphetamine, a felony punishable by imprisonment of 5- 10 years, a fine between $5,000- $20,000 or both.
Under a plea agreement accepted by the High Court in July of this year, Apolo pled guilty to the amended charge of unlawful possession of methamphetamine, a class D felony, punishable by up to 5 years in jail, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.
Apolo admits that on Jan. 11, 2019 she had on her, drugs and paraphernalia when police pulled over her vehicle.
When given the chance to speak, Apolo apologized and begged for a second chance so she can return home and care for her children. She told the court that her eldest daughter left American Samoa for the military Monday night, leaving her husband and her 4 young kids at home.
With tears In her eyes, Apolo said she’s truly remorseful and she knows her kids really need her at home.
McNeill asked the court to adopt Probation’s recommendation in the Pre Sentence Report (PSR), and sentence Apolo to probation. He said Apolo is a first-time offender, and the drugs found on her were for personal use. Prosecutor Lowe echoed the defense’s submission and asked for a probated sentence.
Before the court deliberated on its decision, an immigration officer was called to the witness stand to explain why Apolo’s immigration ID was never renewed.
Immigration Officer, Jason Laumoli, who is now assigned to the Attorney General’s Office as a special investigator, testified that Apolo’s immigration ID expired July 25, 2008. Since then, neither Apolo nor her sponsor ever made an effort to renew her immigration ID.
On Aug. 9, 2011, the Immigration Board (IB) moved to close Apolo’s file for failure to renew her immigration ID.
McNeill said his client has a new sponsor, who is willing to go through the process so Apolo can have a valid immigration ID. According to Laumoli, in order for Apolo to obtain a new immigration ID, her new sponsor needs to file all the necessary paperwork to the IB.
It is the IB who will decide whether to accept or deny the application for a new immigration ID. The IB will also review the court’s Judgement and Sentence, which will reflect Apolo’s felony conviction. According to Immigration laws, Apolo should remain in her country of origin to await the outcome of her application with the IB.
Sunia asked Laumoli if Apolo’s immigration file indicates why she failed to renew her immigration ID. Laumoli replied, no. Sunia fired back and told Laumoli that Immigration should investigate the reason why Apolo did not renew her immigration ID.
According to Sunia, maybe Apolo has an unpaid hospital bill, or owes money to the court, or her sponsor is dead.
Sunia said this is not acceptable to the court, that a person vanishes for many years and is later arrested for a felony. He said maybe Immigration is waiting for something to happen, or maybe they are waiting for the tide to bring Apolo back to them.
According to the court, Apolo was pulled over by police because the light on her license plate was not on, and her turn signal wasn't flashing when she turned on to Vaitogi Road on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019.
When asked for her driver's license, Apolo said she didn't have it on her, neither did she have any other form of ID. While speaking to Apolo, the officer noticed a cut-up straw "commonly used to scoop meth” on the back seat of the vehicle.
Apolo’s vehicle was driven by a cop to the Tafuna Substation where she was told that the vehicle was being impounded until someone with a valid driver's license comes by to claim it.
An inventory of the vehicle netted a stamp-sized baggie with a small amount of a crystalline substance, which later tested positive as meth, on the floor of the back seat of the driver's side.
At first, Apolo told police she had no knowledge of the baggie and its contents. But a similar baggie — also containing a crystalline substance that later tested positive as meth — was found on her during a body search.
Apolo then admitted to police that she started smoking ice 4 months prior, saying it “gives her strength to do her chores at home." She said she doesn't own a pipe, she usually borrows one from a friend in Vaitogi and the baggie they found was also from a friend.
Apolo was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Execution of sentence is suspended and she is placed on 5 years probation subject to several conditions. She has to serve 20 months at the TCF, credited for the 8 months she has already served.
Upon release from detention, Apolo is ordered to immediately depart the territory and remain outside of its borders for the duration of probation, unless she is able to return to American Samoa lawfully as a “registered alien”.
Sunia told McNeill that his client “may not enter on a permit,” but must have “a lawfully issued ID from the American Samoa Immigration Office.”
If Apolo returns as a registered alien, she is ordered to comply with other conditions of probation — she is to remain law abiding, as well as alcohol and drug free, and she has to pay a $1,000 fine.