NMI high court: Evidentiary hearing was required…


On Dec. 30, 2017, the NMI Supreme Court issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Castro, 2017 MP 20, concluding the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Michael T. Castro’s motion for an evidentiary hearing.

On the advice of his counsel, Castro, in the Commonwealth on a CNMI-Only Transitional Worker visa, entered a guilty plea to a charge of misdemeanor theft. After his release from the Department of Corrections, he was referred to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which commenced deportation proceedings based on his conviction. At that point, Castro filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel, and moved for an evidentiary hearing. The trial court denied his motions, finding he could not succeed on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Castro appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court, building on the standard it established in Commonwealth v. Bashar, 2015 MP 4, determined the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Castro’s motion for an evidentiary hearing because the existing record was inadequate to resolve substantial issues of material fact.

Specifically, Castro’s declaration and his trial counsel’s declaration were contradictory and there was little other evidence to resolve the conflict. The high court concluded the trial court could not simply pick one declaration as being more credible than the other. Instead, it needed to hold an evidentiary hearing to assess the credibility of the witnesses.

Because the Supreme Court found it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to deny Castro’s motion for an evidentiary hearing, the Supreme Court did not reach Castro’s other arguments. Instead, it vacated the trial court’s order and remanded the case with instructions to hold an evidentiary hearing.

The high court’s full opinion is available at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme17.html.

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