7/26/2019Virginia Court: Driver Lying To Cop Is Not Obstruction
Court of Appeals in Virginia clears father who lied to cops about a car accident to protect his son.
If a motorist is in a "voluntary" conversation with a police officer, telling a lie does not constitute obstruction of justice. That was the finding last week of the Virginia Court of Appeals, which overturned the conviction of Lamberto Maldonado, who was to spend three months in jail for fibbing to a cop to protect his son, Everardo, from charges related to a traffic accident.
On December 29, 2016, Everardo Maldonado took his father's Nissan pickup to go to Kelly's Pub with a friend, Justin Travis. According to court records, some evidence shows Everardo Maldonado may have driven the pickup truck while tipsy and rolled the vehicle into a ditch on Route 184.
Northampton County Sheriff's deputy Roger Pike came upon the scene and found that the truck was empty, except for a cell phone that had been left behind. After about ten minutes, Sonia Maldonado, Everardo's brother, arrived on the scene. The deputy explained that he was looking for the truck's driver. She confirmed that the pickup belonged to her father, but she said it had been stolen.
While investigating the crash, Virginia State Trooper Daniel Wallace traced the cell phone in the truck to Travis. Trooper Wallace then drove to the Maldonado home to ask Lamberto Maldonado a few questions. The man explained his truck was stolen and, when asked, he said his son was not home. Everardo was home, and, when eventually questioned, he denied ever leaving the house on the night of the accident.
Another deputy found Travis at Sentara Norfolk Hospital. Travis explained everything about what happened that evening, saying Everardo Maldonado had been behind the wheel. With that evidence, Lamberto Maldonado was convicted of obstruction of justice for trying to mislead the investigating officers.
Maldonado's attorney argued that his client may have inconvenienced the officers, but he did not prevent them from talking to his son. Virginia law has a specific crime for hindering investigations, Section 18.2-462, but it specifically excludes family members. Making a false police report is also a crime, but Maldonado was acquitted of that offense. It is a crime to fail to obey the orders of a police officer in Virginia, but Maldonado was never under orders to cooperate. The court determined that Maldonado's evasiveness added no more than forty minutes to the time needed to complete the investigation and that this was not terribly significant.
"Lying is broadly prohibited by a far higher power than this court, and we certainly do not condone it," Judge Robert J. Humphreys wrote for the three-judge panel. "However, there is no statute or case law that stands for the proposition that lying to law enforcement officers during a consensual encounter, or failing to admit them to one's home on request, constitutes an obstruction of justice offense in the Commonwealth and as noted, to the extent similar actions have been criminalized, it has been done via other statutory offenses that have additional requirements and with which Maldonado was not charged."
The court reversed Maldonado's conviction. A copy of the opinion is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.