[Posted June 9, 2016] If you’re reading this on a tablet or a cell phone, and you’re standing – or even leaning on something – you need to sit down before you read further.

Comfy? Okay; let’s take up Clarke, Director v. Galdamez, a habeas corpus appeal from up in the State of Northern Virginia.

This is an ineffective-assistance claim by a resident alien, a native of El Salvador. He was charged with drunk driving and felony hit and run. His lawyer negotiated the second charge down to a misdemeanor and Galdamez pleaded guilty, getting a total of ten days in jail to serve, with a total of 260 days suspended on the two charges.

Alas for him, Homeland Security was on the ball; it notified him that his Temporary Protected Status as an alien was being revoked. The HS folks recommended that he pack his bags.

Relying on Padilla v. Kentucky, Galdamez got a lawyer who filed a habeas petition, claiming that his defense lawyer failed to advise him of the deportation consequences of his guilty plea. He asserted that if he had been advised correctly, he would have fought the charges by going to trial. The Director of the Department of Corrections moved the habeas court to dismiss because regardless of the quality of the advice, Galdamez had “no viable defenses” to the charges.

The habeas court conducted an evidentiary hearing, and concluded that Galdamez had stated a claim for relief. It found that the lawyer had failed to advise his client properly, and found it possible that Galdamez would have been acquitted if the case had gone to trial. The court set the convictions aside, subject to the Commonwealth’s right to retry him.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I needed to warn you to sit down. Let’s deal with that now. Here are the underlying facts:

Galdamez drove his car, westbound, out of a parking lot into the northbound lanes of a road. Despite the fact that the weather was clear and his line of sight down the roadway was unobstructed, he failed to see a car coming from his left. He entered the road, intending to turn left. He T-boned the oncoming car, resulting in significant damage to his entire front end and the entire right side of the victim’s car, which slued across a concrete median before coming to rest in the southbound lanes. A police officer estimated $4,000 in damage to Galdamez’s car and $2,000 to the victim’s.

Instead of stopping to check on the victim, Galdamez completed his left turn and drove to a nearby friend’s home. The friend urged him to go back, and he returned 12 to 15 minutes later – evidently before the police got there – and soon thereafter found himself under arrest for DUI and leaving the scene.

The habeas court ruled that he would have had a plausible basis for being acquitted, because despite leaving the scene, he returned promptly. Unfortunately, the hit-and-run statute requires drivers to stop “immediately,” a word that, in my mind, doesn’t contemplate a 15-minute detour. (Etymologically, the word comes from Latin roots meaning, “not to be in the middle.” That’s good enough for me.)

A bare majority of the Supreme Court affirms today, but on more expansive grounds. It holds that Galdamez could reasonably have perceived that a jury would buy his explanation that he didn’t know at the time that he had been in an accident; he only figured that out when he got to his friend’s house. Today’s majority finds that the factfinder should have resolved this issue.

And it is here, I’ll confess, that today’s majority loses me completely. Instead, I find myself in Justice Kelsey’s corner (the chief justice and Justice McClanahan are keeping me company over there) as he writes, “A rational jury could not come to that conclusion [that Galdamez didn’t know there had been a collision] because it simply defies common sense.”

The linchpin of the majority’s holding is a 1946 case in which a bus driver ran over a person lying in the roadway, but didn’t realize it. The bus driver was convicted of hit and run, but that conviction was reversed on appeal. That probably sounds puzzling to you, and it puzzled me; how can you not notice that you’ve just run someone over?

And then I read the dissent’s explanation of the decision: the bus driver was proceeding in thick fog that obscured vision for more than a few feet. The 1940s edition of the Supreme Court noted that “it was impossible to discern objects on the roadbed immediately in front of the bus,” and concluded:

A heavy bus loaded with 35 passengers and their baggage could have passed over the head or body of a person without the driver or passengers being able to distinguish the jar or jolt, if any, from that made by the wheels of the bus passing over any ordinary defect in the roadbed.

Now I see how someone could run over a guy and not know it. Galdamez, in contrast, had a clear day and a clear view of the car that he hit broadside. There may be a nuance to the evidence that I just don’t perceive at this distance, but from what I can see, the idea that acquittal was reasonably likely is wholly implausible to me.

This issue matters because if a reasonable defendant – not this actual defendant, because this is an objective standard – could have found it rational to go to trial, then the prejudice component of Strickland v. Washington is satisfied. Since the Director didn’t challenge the performance prong, that leads the court to send the case back for a retrial.

One last point: you can always reason that a jury might have decided to shake Galdamez loose despite the evidence, in a form of jury nullification. But the dissent quotes SCOTUS caselaw that excludes considerations like that from the courts’ calculus. Otherwise, a quixotic hope could undo the entire Strickland doctrine, making every conceivable escape effective to uncork the conviction. The dissent points out that taking that liberal a view wouldn’t satisfy the prejudice analysis; it would eliminate it.