The CNMI Supreme Court has found that the rehabilitation provision was unreasonably rendered by Superior Court Presiding Judge Roberto C. Naraja in sentencing a former police officer in 2014 for illegal possession of methamphetamine.
In their order issued Friday, CNMI Supreme Court associate justices John A. Manglona and Perry B. Inos, and Justice Pro Tempore Robert J. Torres granted Victor Val Hocog’s petition to vacate his rehabilitation term.
The justices remanded the case to the Superior Court for re-sentencing consistent with their order.
The justices, however, denied Hocog’s petition to expand their review beyond the motion to reconsider.
“We do not find that we overlooked a point of law or fact in regard to the alleged illegality of Hocog’s sentence,” the justices said.
However, the justices said, in the interests of justice, they find that Hocog’s sentence with respect to the rehabilitation provision was unreasonably rendered.
The justices said Naraja abused his discretion in issuing such a sentencing provision.
Hocog signed a plea deal with the CNMI government and entered a guilty plea.
On Sept. 25, 2014, Naraja sentenced Hocog to 15 months in prison, a $2,000 fine, and 30 months of drug rehabilitation services after release. Hocog was given credit for 226 days of time served.
Pursuant to the terms of the plea agreement, Naraja mandated Hocog to receive 30 months of rehabilitation treatment from the Hawaii Habilitat Treatment facility or a similar facility.
Naraja ordered that the $10,000 that Hocog posted as bail be used for the cost of treatment.
The judge further ordered that if Hocog “failed these conditions, he will be in violation of criminal contempt, and may face a maximum punishment of up to six months imprisonment, a fine of $100, or both.”
In their order Friday, the justices said Hocog’s likely inability to fund rehabilitation services outside the CNMI coupled with holding contempt over Hocog’s head for an indeterminate period of time—and therefore the possibility of imprisonment—make this term simply unreasonable.
According to court records, eight months after Naraja issued the judgment of conviction, Hocog moved to correct an illegal sentence.
Naraja denied the motion. Hocog then filed a motion to reconsider which was also denied.
Hocog appealed to the Supreme Court the denial of his motion for reconsideration, arguing that “because rehabilitation is inherently a probationary term,” Naraja erred by imposing an illegal sentence.
According to Hocog, a sentence must be suspended first before any condition of probation is imposed.
Hocog argued that because the sentence was not suspended before rehabilitation (a probationary term) was imposed, the rehabilitation provision is illegal.
The justices responded by announcing that “rehabilitation in this case is not a form of probation, but rather a valid bargained-for term and condition of Hocog’s plea agreement.
The justices reiterated what Hocog’s counsel explicitly stated in the plea agreement and at the plea hearing, that rehabilitation is not a probationary term.
As a result, the justices said, “the relevant legal question is whether the court may allow rehabilitation as a condition of a plea agreement.”
The justices agreed that Naraja did.
Accordingly, the justices said, Naraja did not abuse his discretion and they affirmed the denial of Hocog’s motion to reconsider.
Hocog then timely filed petitions for rehearing of the high court’s decision.
Hocog, through counsel then-assistant public defender Cindy Nesbit, argued that because an illegal sentence may be appealed at any time, the justices incorrectly narrowed their review to the motion for reconsideration.
Hocog argued that no statutory authority exists to impose rehabilitation and that as a probationary term, rehabilitation cannot be imposed without a suspended sentence.
Assistant public defender Robert Charles Lee argued in the government’s opposition.
In rejecting Hocog’s first argument, the justices said the motion to correct an illegal sentence was itself untimely.
The justices said a motion to reduce a sentence may be made…within 120 days after the sentence is imposed.
The justices said Hocog filed the motion to correct an illegal sentence well beyond 120 days later.
The justices said after the court denied the motion to correct, Hocog did not appeal, and instead moved for reconsideration.
The justices said Hocog appealed the court’s denial of his motion for reconsideration, but this appeal was over two months after the court’s denial of the motion to correct.
The justices said the high court’s rule requires that a notice of appeal be filed within 30 days of the entry of the order being appealed.
They noted that Hocog did not file an appeal of the denial within the time prescribed by the high court’s rules.
Hocog finally conceded that he only appealed the motion to reconsider and not the motion to correct.
The justices said these considerations taken together justified limiting their review to the motion to reconsider.
On rehabilitation issue, the justices said the argument that Naraja did not comply with statutory authority in crafting his sentence is erroneous.
The justices said Naraja did not exceed his mandate to fashion a sentence “in the best interests of justice” and did not conflict with other sentencing statutes.
The justices said they affirm their finding that rehabilitation, in this context, is not a probationary term.
The justices said because rehabilitation is not a probationary term, the remaining argument concerning suspended sentences has no merit.
The justices said Naraja mandated that Hocog receive 30 months of rehabilitation treatment from the Hawaii Habilitat Treatment facility or a similar facility.
To fund this, the justices said, Naraja ordered that the $10,000 which Hocog’s mother posted as bail “be used for treatment at Habilitat or a substantially similar rehabilitation program.”
The justices said Naraja did not make any findings concerning Hocog’s eligibility for admission to a long-term addiction treatment center, the costs and duration of the long-term treatment program, or his ability to pay for the rehabilitation program.
The justices said Naraja simply ordered Hocog receive 30 months of rehabilitation treatment.
They said there is also no discussion of responsibility for payment of any costs in excess of $10,000 and it is unrealistic to expect that $10,000 would be enough to pay for Hocog to live in Hawaii and attend a residential treatment program for 30 months when the cost of living in Hawaii is one of the most expensive in the U.S.
“It is unlikely that Hocog could even carry this burden,” the justices said.