On Oct. 21, 2016, the Supreme Court issued its order in Commonwealth v. Rita Sablan. The High Court dismissed the appeal and sanctioned the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands because the appeal was frivolous.
The Commonwealth charged Dr. Rita Sablan with operating a government vehicle with tinting and without the requisite government license plates and markings. Following a bench trial, the trial court acquitted Sablan, concluding the vehicle she operated was not a “government vehicle” because it was leased for 15 days, not the statutorily required 12 months under 9 CMC Section 1103(e).
The Commonwealth appealed the judgment of acquittal. Subsequently, Sablan filed a motion seeking dismissal of the appeal and sought sanctions under Supreme Court Rule 38 arguing the appeal was frivolous. Sablan argued as a matter of law a judgment of acquittal is not appealable. In response, the Commonwealth argued the appeal was not frivolous because 6 CMC Section 8101 allows the government to appeal on a point of law without seeking reversal of an acquittal when a statute has been held invalid. It asserted that the trial court invalidated 9 CMC Section 1103(e) by applying a narrower definition of vehicle ownership from 9 CMC Section 1103(e) of the Vehicle Code rather than applying the definition of “leased” from 1 CMC Section 7406(a)(2) when interpreting “government vehicle.”
The Supreme Court first reviewed the statutes governing the government’s right to appeal and concluded 6 CMC Section 8101 allowed the Commonwealth to appeal a trial court’s ruling invalidating a statute from a judgment of acquittal without attacking the acquittal on the merits. Notwithstanding this right, the High Court concluded the appeal was frivolous because the trial court did not invalidate any statute. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court merely engaged in a statutory interpretation to clarity the term of art “owned or leased” under 9 CMC Section 1103(e). The Supreme Court also concluded that the Commonwealth failed to properly explain what it was appealing in its notice of appeal, which resulted in Sablan’s motion. Due to this error and for filing a frivolous appeal, the Supreme Court sanctioned the Commonwealth.
The Supreme Court’s full opinion is available at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme16.html. (NMI Judiciary)