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PD’s Office uses police officer to translate a plea agreement in assault case

Associate Justice Fiti Sunia
Court throws it out

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Associate Justice Fiti Sunia has advised Assistant Public Defender Rob McNeill to hire an “Independent Translator” if the Public Defender’s Office continues to be short staffed — that is not have on staff people who can translate terms of plea agreement with their clients.

Otherwise, Sunia added, the court will start ordering that all plea agreements have a Samoan translated version.

Sunia made the statement when inmate Gogo Salati appeared in court yesterday morning for a Change of Plea hearing. McNeill represents Salati while Assistant Attorney General Laura Garvey is prosecuting.

Salati was initially charged with one count of second degree assault, a class D felony; and one count of third degree assault (domestic violence). But under a plea agreement that was announced in open court — but later rejected — Salati agreed to plead guilty to the amended count of third degree assault, a class A misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to one year, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

With his guilty plea, Salati admits that on May 7, 2019, he caused injuries to the victim by hitting his head with a pipe. Salati told the court he’s 36 years old and has lived here most of his life.

When Sunia asked Salati if he understood the terms of the plea agreement, Salati said no. “Can you read or write English?” Sunia asked. Salati said no. “Were you be able to read that agreement?” Sunia continued. Salati replied, “I can’t read English.”

“But you signed the agreement, right?” Sunia asked. Salati said yes.

Sunia then asked Salati if the plea agreement was explained to him in English or Samoan. Salati said it was translated to him in Samoan by a police officer.

Sunia immediately rejected the plea agreement, saying there is a conflict of interest in the process — a police officer working for the government was used by the defense to translate the terms of the plea agreement to the inmate.

Sunia said he is not satisfied that the defendant is fully aware of his rights, and whether the plea agreement was correctly translated to him by the police officer.

The associate justice said the court understands the problem the PD’s Office is facing at this time, with it being short staffed; however, the court will not tell them what to do, nor will it ask the Executive Branch to give them money to hire new people. But something has to be done to solve the problem.

If this continues to be a problem, Sunia said there will be a time the court will order that in future plea agreements, there must be a Samoan version.