Opening arguments set Tuesday for Letasi guns and drugs trial
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The jury trial of a man accused of unlawful possession of illegal drugs and possession of an unregistered 12-gauge shotgun and a 22-caliber rifle kicked-off yesterday at the High Court with jury selection.
Tautua Letasi, who is out on a $60,000 surety bond is charged with unlawful possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute; and unlawful possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, both felonies. Each count is punishable by not more than 20 years imprisonment and a fine of not more than $20,000 or both.
A special hearing was held in another courtroom of the High Court yesterday morning, before the jury selection process started.
The hearing was mainly for a motion from defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender, Ryan Anderson, asking the court to continue his client’s trial for several reasons; however, prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General, Woodrow Pengelly strongly opposed it.
When Letasi’s case was called, Anderson informed the court that yesterday was the first time he's met his client ever since he was arrested over a year ago. He said former Public Defender, Douglas Fiaui had been handling Letasi’s case and he (Anderson) had never had an opportunity to speak to him.
Anderson asked the court to continue the trial, so he can have the opportunity to speak to Letasi and discuss some legal issues regarding the case before trial.
Anderson said there was an offer from the government for his client; however, it appears that this client still wants to exercise his constitutional right to a jury trial.
Pengelly on the other hand said the government is ready to proceed with trial and one of their off island witnesses, a representative from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is arriving this week to testify.
After hearing arguments from both parties, Chief Justice Michael Kruse called for a brief recess, to allow Anderson to talk to his client and discuss what they wanted to do.
When court reconvened, Anderson said the defense team still wants a continuance, saying he had no knowledge of the case until yesterday morning.
He further stated that there was an assumption from Letasi that Fiaui was going to call him to discuss the state of his case; unfortunately, nothing was done.
“Who’s 'they' you keep referring to?” Kruse asked Anderson. “This is just a small island.” Anderson did not response.
Kruse said one of the several conditions for Letasi's release on bond required him to stay in close contact with his attorney. Furthermore, he was to submit to random testing for drugs and alcohol.
Kruse asked the Chief Probation Officer (CPO) who was in courtroom if he ever had the chance to test Letasi. The CPO replied, “Not until today (yesterday morning)."
“Why?” Kruse asked. The CPO said he was unable to get a hold of him; moreover, the PD's Office informed him that it tried to contact him but was unable to locate him.
Kruse then called for a brief conference with attorneys from both sides in chambers.
Afterwards, Kruse announced the court's decision.
He said the court is unable to find any grounds to support the defense's motion for a continuance.
Also, with regards to the defendant’s conditions of release on bond, he was ordered to stay in close contact with his attorney, which he failed to do, and he was also to submit to random testing, which he did not comply with.
“For these reasons, motion is denied. We’ll go ahead and do the jury selection," Kruse said.
The trial resumes today at 9 a.m for jury instructions and opening arguments.
THE GOVERNMENT’S CASE
Charges against Letasi stem from a traffic stop during the early morning hours of May 21st, last year, when cops allegedly confiscated from the defendant’s vehicle a weapon (12-gauge shotgun), narcotics and ammunition, according to court documents, which also states that Letasi’s vehicle was allegedly traveling at an “unknown high rate of speed” and this was the reason why it was stopped by police.
Court documents reveal that Letasi’s driver’s license expired three years ago. Letasi had no form of identification on him when he was pulled over.
Following the traffic stop, police escorted Letasi and his vehicle to the Tafuna substation, where one of the officers inspected the rear of the vehicle and allegedly saw “a barrel of what appeared to be a rifle.”
Police asked Letasi about the object and he allegedly responded, “It was a gun that he was going to fix”, according to court documents, which also pointed out that the “12 gauge rifle that was recovered from the vehicle was revealed to be loaded and was later seized.”
Further search of the vehicle, allegedly “discovered a camouflage Army backpack on the rear seat of the vehicle containing what appeared to be baggies of crystalline substance believed to be methamphetamine and green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”
Police searched the backpack, in Letasi's presence, and allegedly observed what appeared to be baggies of crystalline substance believed to be methamphetamine and baggies with green leafy substance.
Also allegedly discovered by police were crystalline substances in three medium sized ziploc plastic bags, one sandwich sized ziploc plastic bag, two stamp sized ziploc bags; and leafy substances believed to be weed in three small sized plastic ziploc bags, one hand rolled joint; and numerous paraphernalia including a digital scale, and empty baggies commonly used for the packaging and distribution of meth.
Also allegedly discovered inside the backpack was cash totaling $1,658.
In addition, police allegedly discovered five live 12-gauge Winchester ammunition, three 12-gauge Remington live ammunition, and four 9-millimeter live ammunition.
During a vehicle inventory, in the presence of the defendant, police allegedly discovered a hand-rolled joint believed to be marijuana, and empty baggies, commonly used to package meth.
The defendant was formally warned of his rights and it's alleged that Letasi kept uttering to police, “I don’t know what time my guy put the bag in the car.”
Police interviewed Letasi’s spouse at the couple’s home, and she allegedly said the backpack belongs to her husband, and that he would bring the bag home with him sometimes.
Furthermore, the spouse allegedly told police she “doesn’t know who owns the stuff that her husband was selling.” When asked by police about any other illegal substances or firearms, Letasi's wife allegedly told investigators there is another rifle in their bedroom.
Police allegedly discovered, during the search of the couple’s home, a 22-caliber rifle 9 Marline and numerous paraphernalia, such as a digital scale, stamp size baggies, and three glass tubes commonly use to smoke meth.
A check at DPS's Records Office, carried out on May 22, revealed that Letasi’s name was not on any file for weapons registration.