Education Commissioner Dr. Rita A. Sablan appeared in Superior Court yesterday to ask for the dismissal of a traffic case that charges her with misuse of a government vehicle.
Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho later set an evidentiary hearing for Aug. 27, 2015, to clarify issues related to vehicles that are owned or leased by the CNMI government.
Sablan appeared with her counsel, Brien Sers Nicholas. Assistant attorney general Emily Cohen argued for the government’s opposition to the motion to dismiss.
Camacho raised five questions for the evidentiary hearing: What are the differences between a leased vehicle and a rented vehicle? What are the procedures to remove factory tint or windows? What are the procedures to issue a vehicle a government license plate? What are the procedures to place marking on a government vehicle? What are the markings that must be on a government vehicle?
Camacho also asked the parties to provide any other information that will be helpful to the court in deciding on Sablan’s motion to dismiss.
He also instructed Nicholas to summon someone from Joeten Motors, Procurement and Supply, Procurement and Supply at the Public School System, Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Motor Vehicle, and anyone else who can give answers to five questions he raised.
Camacho said the Office of the Attorney General may also summon anyone who can provide answers to the issues.
In an interview after the hearing, Nicholas said he hopes the court will agree with their position.
He said much work needs to be done with the law so it is drafted in such a way that’s not too confusing and too vague.
Nicholas said if there are some problems with the law, the lawmakers are the ones who can fix it.
On Jan. 15, 2015, police Sgt. Anthony Macaranas cited Sablan with three counts of violating the government vehicle provisions of the Commonwealth Code.
The government is charging Sablan with operating a government vehicle that had tinting materials on its window, operating a government or government-leased vehicle that is not marked on both front doors, and with driving a government vehicle that does not bear government license plates.
At the hearing, Nicholas argued that the traffic statute that allegedly had been violated in this case is “unconstitutionally vague.”
He asserted that prosecution will have a difficult time in proving that the car that Sablan was using is a government vehicle. Nicholas said the car belongs to Joeten Motors and not to the CNMI government.
“A leased vehicle is not a government vehicle,” he pointed out.
Nicholas said the vehicle, a 2011 Honda Accord, was and continues to be registered with Joeten Motor as the named owner, not PSS.
In Sablan’s memorandum, Nicholas said the statute discussed attempts to overreach in claiming full ownership of the vehicle even though it is a leased vehicle.
Simply put, Nicholas said, the definition of what constitutes a “government vehicle” is vague at best, given that the government cannot treat a vehicle that it does not own.
Nicholas said the traffic law must be declared vague and unconstitutional.
In the government’s opposition, assistant attorney general Emily Cohen argued that the law is not unconstitutionally vague, the motion is not appropriate to determine whether the car is a government vehicle, and the evidence shows the car was a government vehicle.
At the hearing, Cohen said the motion is a premature motion for judgment of acquittal and that the government should be allowed to put evidence during the trial.
Cohen asserted that no matter what the lease agreement says, a person cannot circumvent the law and that the contract does not relieve a person from complying with the law.
In this case, the prosecutor said, Sablan was operating the vehicle with no markings.
In her memorandum, Cohen said Sablan claims that all of 1CMC Subsection 7406 is unconstitutionally vague because the definition of what is a government vehicle is vague.
Cohen said under the statute, a government vehicle is defined as “vehicle owned or leased by the Commonwealth government or any of its branches or political subdivisions, including autonomous agencies, government corporations, boards, and commissions.”
Cohen said the definition of a government vehicle is plain and clear on its face.
She asserted that any ambiguities can be resolved by a closer look at the Commonwealth Code.
Cohen said the lease for this vehicle began Jan. 1, 2014, and Sablan was stopped on Jan. 15, 2015, so the government is legally the owner of the car.
“There is no ambiguity; a government vehicle is one that is owned or leased. Therefore, the statute is not vague,” she pointed out.
Cohen said Sablan had been pulled over prior to being cited and was given a warning by Sgt. Macaranas.
Cohen said if Sablan believes the statute did not apply to this car, she should have sought a legal opinion from the Office of the Attorney General at that point, like other government agencies have.
“The statute makes it abundantly clear what is prohibited. Therefore, it is not overbroad,” she said.
The prosecutor said the government is asserting their right to a trial before the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the car was a government vehicle.
At the trial, Cohen said, the government expects to call witnesses and present evidence to prove the car was a government vehicle.