In a 4 to 3 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed a habeas court’s decision to grant a writ of habeas corpus, reasoning that it was plausible that a trier of fact could find that the petitioner had not known he had hit another motor vehicle with his own vehicle.
While driving his vehicle westbound out of a parking lot onto a roadway, Daniel Galdamez failed to yield to traffic traveling in northbound lanes and struck another vehicle in the northbound lane. The vehicle that was struck crossed a median and entered the southbound lanes as a result of the impact. Rather than stopping his vehicle, Mr. Galdamez continued traveling until he reached a friend’s home. He returned to the scene of the accident approximately fifteen minutes later, before the police arrived. Mr. Galdamez was charged with felony hit and run and driving while intoxicated.
Mr. Galdamez is a foreign citizen and had explained to his attorney that he did not want to lose his immigration status in the United States. His attorney negotiated a plea agreement reducing the felony to a misdemeanor and a stipulated sentence requiring Mr. Galdamez to spend ten days incarcerated. Mr. Galdamez agreed to plea agreement. The Department of Homeland Security then informed Mr. Galdamez that his temporary protected status would be revoked as a result of having two misdemeanor convictions.
Mr. Galdamez initiated a habeas proceeding alleging that his attorney had given him erroneous advice, that he would not have accepted the plea agreement if he knew it could affect his temporary protected status, and that he had viable defenses that may have succeeded if he had gone to trial.
This is the part of the opinion that is interesting. The habeas court concluded that Mr. Galdamez had a colorable claim of prejudice under the Strickland test because he had a “viable defense”to the hit and run charge and it was “possible that the fact finder, under the totality of the circumstances, would have acquitted Mr. Galdamez of the hit and run charge.” The Supreme Court agreed, and affirmed the opinion of the habeas court.
§46.2-894 of the Virginia Code requires drivers to stop “immediately” at the scene of an accident. According to Mr. Galdamez’s testimony, he did not stop immediately, rather he returned to the scene after he realized he had hit something. But, is his testimony that he did not realize he had hit something credible? The habeas court thought so, and the Supreme Court is bound by that determination unless it is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it. The Supreme Court concluded that because Mr. Galdamez’s affidavit stated that until he saw the damage to his car, he did not realize that he may have struck another vehicle, and because the path of the vehicles after impact left open the possibility of whether Mr. Galdamez actually saw the other vehicle, there was sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that there was a factual issue for the trier of fact to determine.
Is it rational to believe that Mr. Galdamez did not know he struck another vehicle? If I were the trier of fact, I would probably say no. But, my husband might say yes, maybe he thought he hit the curb. The point is, it is debatable and that is ultimately the role of the trier of fact. There was no evidence opposing Mr. Galdamez’s testimony or the police report. If there had been, perhaps the outcome would have been different.