OAG wants ‘vehicle owned’ or ‘leased’ clarified

Bench trial of ex-Labor secretary in misuse of govt vehicle case vacated

The Office of the Attorney General has filed a motion to clarify the Superior Court’s interpretation of the terms “vehicle owned” or “leased,” prompting the court to vacate the scheduled bench trial today, Wednesday, of former Labor Secretary Edith Eleanor DeLeon Guerrero, who is facing traffic charges for misuse of government vehicle.

Assistant attorney general Jonathan Robert Glass Jr. filed the motion for clarification on Monday.

Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho vacated the bench trial scheduled for today and set the hearing on the motion for clarification on Aug. 3, 2017.

Last Oct. 1, 2016, DeLeon Guerrero was cited for driving an unmarked government vehicle and with tinted windows. DeLeon Guerrero has pleaded not guilty.

In the government’s motion for clarification, Glass said the Commonwealth came across a prior traffic case against former Education Commissioner Dr. Rita Aldan Sablan. In April 2016, Camacho acquitted Sablan of the same three charges filed against DeLeon Guerrero. The judge concluded that the car Sablan was driving was not a “government vehicle” because it was leased for 15 days, not the statutorily required 12 months.

The government appealed Sablan’s case but the CNMI Supreme Court dismissed it and sanctioned the Commonwealth because the appeal was deemed frivolous.

Glass said that in Sablan’s case, Camacho defined a vehicle owned or leased according to the definition found in 9CMC 1103(e). The government believes this is not the correct reading of the statutes, as it creates a loophole wherein a government entity can lease a vehicle for 364 days, have the government pay for all of it (gas, insurance, repairs, etc.), but then not qualify it as a “government vehicle” for purposes of enforcing the code, and thereby allow government employees to use this vehicle as a personal vehicle on the government’s dime, Glass said.

In addition, Glass said, because the CNMI government is run on a per year fiscal basis (where every department gets a budget that is only good for that year), a government entity would not be able to lease a vehicle for more than one year.

The prosecutor said the law defines a “‘government vehicle’ as a vehicle owned or leased by the Commonwealth or any of its branches or political subdivisions, including autonomous agencies, government corporations, boards, and commissions.”

This language is very clear in its meaning, he said.

Glass said if the government owns or leases a vehicle, then it is considered a “government vehicle.”

Glass said the problem arises is in how Camacho came to interpret “owned or leased.” While these words have plain meanings, Glass said that Camacho looked beyond the plain meaning, to the definition provided by a completely different title of the Commonwealth Code, which includes a small section about owners including government vehicles when leased for 12 months or more.

Glass said this definition of “owner” wasn’t meant to explain what constitutes a “government vehicle.”

He said the word being defined is “owner” in this section.

Glass said this definition is for when the government is considered an “owner” of a vehicle for the purposes of Title 9 laws.

Glass said the purposes of Title 9 and Title 1 are vastly different.

Title 1, he said, specifically deals with government, and section 7406 specifically deals with restriction upon government vehicles.

Title 9, he said, deals with vehicles in general, and sets the rules of the road.

Glass said due to Camacho’s interpretation of the statutes, it has created a system whereby the law has been rendered moot, as no government agency leases vehicles for more than 12 months, and it circumvents the plain meaning intended by the Legislature.

In an earlier interview, DeLeon Guerrero said she pleaded not guilty to the charges as it’s a rental car and not government property.

“It is ridiculous,” DeLeon Guerrero said, referring to the traffic charges.

Each of three charges is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or three days of imprisonment.

According to court documents, police officer Jesus Santos issued the traffic citation against DeLeon Guerrero last Oct. 16 at 3:39pm in the parking lot of the Happiness Chinese Restaurant in western Garapan.

DeLeon Guerrero was the driver of a red five-door Toyota car with license plate ACU-788. The car is registered to Marfega Trading Co. Inc.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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