Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 8, 2020
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 8, 2020//
The Court of Appeals correctly affirmed appellant’s conviction under the hit and run statute after determining there was sufficient evidence to show that he failed to satisfy either of the two post-accident reporting requirements. However, the Court of Appeals should not have sua sponte opined that the statute required appellant to satisfy only one of the two reporting requirements. We vacate that portion of the opinion and otherwise affirm.
Appellant Butcher was convicted of misdemeanor failure to stop at an accident scene in violation of the hit and run statute, Code § 46.2-894. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, noting that there was sufficient evidence that Butcher did not satisfy either of the statute’s two reporting requirements. Those requirements are that a driver who damages property must report this to the police and to the owner or custodian of the damaged property.
But the Court of Appeals went on to further rule that Butcher was only required to meet one of the two reporting requirements to satisfy the statute’s requirements. The court did so sua sponte after acknowledging that Butcher expressly conceded that the statute required him to satisfy both reporting requirements.
“We agree with the Court of Appeals that the trial court, sitting as factfinder, could have reasonably concluded that Butcher had not complied with either of the two reporting requirements in Code § 46.2-894, … and we adopt the reasoning of the Court of Appeals on this dispositive issue. On this ground, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming Butcher’s conviction.
“We respectfully disagree, however, with the decision of the Court of Appeals to ‘hold that, to meet the statutory command, appellant only needed to report forthwith the required information to one person described in the statutory list[.]’ …
“For two reasons, we vacate that portion of the opinion of the Court of Appeals. First, Butcher expressly disclaimed the argument that the statute’s reporting requirements are disjunctive during oral argument before the Court of Appeals. … The Court of Appeals, of course, did not have to agree with that concession of law. We do not permit litigants ‘to define Virginia law by their concessions. … This principle must be distinguished, however, from an appellant’s concession of law that qualifies either as a waiver for purposes of Rule 5:25, governing arguments not raised below, or as a waiver for purposes of Rules 5:17(c) and 5:27, applicable to arguments not properly raised on appeal.’ …
“‘In either scenario, we may accept arguendo the concession – not as a basis for deciding the contested issue of law, but as a basis for not deciding it.’ …
“Second, it was logically unnecessary for the Court of Appeals to address this undisputed legal issue. The Court of Appeals found the evidence sufficient to prove that Butcher had complied with neither of the statute’s two reporting requirements. That so, it did not matter whether the statute required him to comply with only one of them. The result would be the same in either event.
“As we have often said, ‘the doctrine of judicial restraint dictates that we decide cases ‘on the best and narrowest grounds available.’ … Regarding the ‘best’ ground for decision, most jurists would agree that a sua sponte holding would rarely qualify as the best answer to a legal question that neither litigant is asking. That conclusion is particularly true when the holding attempts to resolve a difficult interpretative question and a simpler answer is readily available.
“In this case, our concurring colleagues offer very different interpretations of Code § 46.2-894 – yet they all rely upon a thorough analysis of the legislative history, a careful study of the peculiarities of the statute’s syntax, and a thoughtful consideration of the underlying legislative policies. These competing interpretations prove only that the attempt to untangle the language of Code § 46.2-894 involves no easy task and results in no confident consensus.
“As for the ‘narrowest ground’ for decision, a ruling on the factual sufficiency of a single case will affect far fewer subsequent cases than a broad pronouncement on an open legal question. Given the multitude of factual scenarios – some foreseeable, some not – that can arise in a single legal context, a degree of judicial caution should accompany any holding that reaches out beyond the limits of the particular case to address unnecessary and novel issues.”
“That caution is particularly prudent in criminal cases where, as here, the reasoning of the Court of Appeals adverse to the Commonwealth is embedded in a published opinion that ends with an affirmance of the criminal defendant’s conviction.
“When structured that way, a Court of Appeals opinion could make a judicial pronouncement unfavorable to the Commonwealth on an important, hotly disputed legal issue that would be wholly immune from direct appellate review by this Court. In other words, a holding of the Court of Appeals on one issue, if sufficient alone to justify the result, could preclude the appellate process from testing the validity of what purports to be a ‘holding’ on another issue – one perhaps far more important than the first. …
“This anomaly could have a long-lasting effect because an unappealable ‘holding’ by the Court of Appeals adverse to the Commonwealth in one case would likely be viewed, correctly or not, as binding on every trial court in all future prosecutions and on every panel of the Court of Appeals hearing later appeals involving the same issue.”
“For these reasons, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming Butcher’s conviction. We do so based upon the persuasive analysis by the Court of Appeals of the sufficiency of the evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Butcher failed to satisfy either of the two reporting requirements in Code § 46.2-894. Offering no opinion on the competing conjunctive/disjunctive interpretations of the statute, however, we vacate the portion of the opinion of the Court of Appeals addressing that debate.”
Butcher v. Commonwealth, Record No. 1816o8 (Kelsey; McCullough, joined by Mims, concurring) Feb. 27, 2020, (COA). Richard Garnett Jr., Aaron Michael Vandenbrook for Appellant, Robert Homer Anderson III, David Michael Uberman, Virginia Bidwell Theisen for Appellee. VLW 020-6-010, 20 pp.