State v. Gardner, 21015

CourtCourt of Appeals of Idaho
Citation885 P.2d 1144,126 Idaho 428
Docket NumberNo. 21015,21015
PartiesSTATE of Idaho, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Danny John GARDNER, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date21 November 1994

Whittier, McDougall, Souza, Murray & Clark, Chartered, Pocatello, for appellant.

Larry EchoHawk, Atty. Gen., Myrna A.I. Stahman, Deputy Atty. Gen., Boise, for respondent.


In this appeal we must determine whether the defendant, who pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea after sentence was imposed because the prosecution did not disclose material, exculpatory evidence prior to entry of the guilty plea. We hold that,

[126 Idaho 431] under the unique circumstances of this case, the defendant was entitled to withdraw the plea.


Danny John Gardner was charged with vehicular manslaughter, I.C. §§ 18-4006(3)(a), (b), as a result of an automobile collision on May 31, 1993. Gardner was driving on U.S. highway 91 when his vehicle crossed the center line and struck a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction. The driver of the pickup died as result of injuries sustained in the collision. Three other passengers in the pickup were seriously injured. Gardner and a passenger in his vehicle, his nephew, also suffered injuries requiring hospitalization.

The Idaho State Police (ISP) investigated the accident. Urine samples collected from Gardner at the hospital tested positive for marijuana, as did a pipe recovered by the ISP from Gardner's automobile. A few days after the accident Gardner's nephew was interviewed by an ISP officer. The nephew, a child, 1 said that Gardner had just lit the pipe, taken two deep breaths and "kind of slumped over the steering wheel" immediately prior to the accident.

On August 2, 1993, a complaint was filed charging Gardner with vehicular manslaughter. Attached to the complaint were the ISP accident report, an ISP report relating the interview of the nephew; an incident report filed by the ISP officer who responded to the accident; and toxicology records indicating that the urine samples taken from Gardner had tested positive for cannabinoids.

An attorney was appointed to represent Gardner. On September 20, 1993, Gardner entered a plea of guilty. At that hearing Gardner acknowledged that he had been using marijuana before the accident. He also stated that he could not remember anything about the accident and believed that he might have fallen asleep while driving because he had not slept during the preceding night. The district court accepted Gardner's guilty plea and ordered a presentence investigation report. On November 22, 1993, Gardner was given a unified sentence of ten years with a four-year minimum term.

Shortly thereafter, Gardner's attorney learned that a witness to the accident, who had been driving directly behind Gardner's vehicle, believed that the left-front tire of Gardner's automobile blew out immediately before the vehicle crossed the center line and collided with the oncoming pickup. 2 Gardner's attorney obtained this information from a lawyer involved in a civil lawsuit arising out of the collision. Gardner's attorney discovered that this eyewitness had given a written statement to the ISP on the day of the accident which stated that, "when the blue car [Gardner's vehicle] was about ten feet in front of the truck I believe the driver('s) front tire blew. The whole [sic] jumped into the oncoming lane like it was on rails." When his deposition was taken in the civil action this witness further explained that he observed the left-front tire blowing out. He saw a puff of dust and rock chunks that appeared to have been caused by the tire blowing, and then the car immediately jerked to the left. 3

On December 13, 1993, Gardner moved to withdraw his guilty plea on grounds that the ISP had in its possession a material and exculpatory statement by the witness and had failed to disclose this information to the defense. Gardner reasoned that this evidence was exculpatory because it showed that the collision was actually caused by a tire blowout, not by the fact that Gardner was to some degree under the influence of marijuana when the collision occurred.

At the hearing on Gardner's motion the prosecutor acknowledged that the ISP had The district court denied leave for withdrawal of Gardner's guilty plea and also denied his alternative request for reduction of his sentence. Gardner brings this appeal from the denial of both of these alternative requests for relief.

[126 Idaho 432] possessed the witness's statement but failed to reveal its existence either to the prosecutor's office or to counsel for the defense. The prosecutor stated that this was a divergence from the ISP's routine practice of sending the prosecutor copies of all witness statements. The ISP reportedly attributed the omission to "stenographic error."


Gardner contends that his guilty plea was constitutionally infirm because it was entered in ignorance of material, exculpatory evidence possessed by the State. A motion to withdraw a plea of guilty is governed in part by I.C.R. 33(c), which provides that a court may set aside a guilty plea after sentencing to correct manifest injustice. 4 See State v. Gomez, 124 Idaho 177, 857 P.2d 656 (1993); State v. Carrasco, 117 Idaho 295, 298, 787 P.2d 281, 284 (1990). A motion to withdraw a guilty plea under I.C.R. 33(c) is committed to the trial court's discretion. On appeal our review is directed to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion. Carrasco, 117 Idaho at 298, 787 P.2d at 284; State v. Hawkins, 117 Idaho 285, 289, 787 P.2d 271, 275 (1990). Where a guilty plea is shown to be constitutionally invalid, however, leave to withdraw the plea is constitutionally mandated. Therefore, we have held that a constitutional violation that would invalidate the guilty plea is a manifest injustice as a matter of law for purposes of withdrawal of a guilty plea under Rule 33(c). State v. Detweiler, 115 Idaho 443, 446, 767 P.2d 286, 289 (Ct.App.1989).

The United States Supreme Court, in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), established that a prosecutor has a duty to disclose to an accused any material, exculpatory evidence in the prosecutor's possession, the failure of which duty is a violation of the accused person's right to due process. The Court stated, "The suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." Id. at 87, 83 S.Ct. at 1196-1197. Subsequent decisions establish that this prosecutorial obligation of disclosure exists whether the accused has made a request precisely for the material that was withheld, a general request, or no request at all. United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 105 S.Ct. 3375, 87 L.Ed.2d 481 (1985); United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 110, 96 S.Ct. 2392, 2401, 49 L.Ed.2d 342 (1976). ("[T]here are situations in which evidence is obviously of such substantial value to the defense that elementary fairness requires it to be disclosed even without a specific request.")

In tandem with this constitutional obligation stemming from the due process clause, the Idaho Criminal Rules require the prosecuting attorney to disclose "as soon as practicable following the filing of charges," any evidence which "tends to negate the guilt of the accused as to the offense charged or which would tend to reduce the punishment." I.C.R. 16(a). 5

At the outset, we observe that the undisclosed evidence in Gardner's case was exculpatory in nature. Evidence is exculpatory if it "tends to clear an accused of alleged guilt, excuses the actions of the accused, or tends to reduce punishment." State v. Johnson, 120 Idaho 408, 411, 816 P.2d 364, 367 (Ct.App.1991). See also Gibson v. State, 110 Idaho 631, 633, 718 P.2d 283, 285 (1986). As explained more thoroughly in our discussion of the establishment of factual guilt, infra, Gardner could be guilty of vehicular manslaughter only if his driving under the influence or other unlawful act was the cause of the victim's death. The eyewitness's account of his observations was exculpatory because it tended to show that the collision, and ultimately the victim's death, was caused by a tire blowout, not by the fact that Gardner was driving while fatigued or under the influence of a drug. Therefore, the prosecution's obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence applied to this witness's statement.

The State argues that there could not have been a violation of the prosecutor's obligation under Brady v. Maryland because the prosecutor here was as ignorant as defense counsel of the undisclosed witness's statement. We cannot accept this position. First, we think the duty of disclosure enunciated in Brady is an obligation of not just the individual prosecutor assigned to the case, but of all the government agents having a significant role in investigating and prosecuting the offense. See Fambo v. Smith, 433 F.Supp. 590, 598 (W.D.N.Y.1977), aff'd, 565 F.2d 233 (2d Cir.1977). Moreover, I.C.R. 16(a) specifies that the prosecution's duty of automatic disclosure under that rule extends to exculpatory evidence and information in the possession or control of the prosecuting attorney's staff and of "any others who have participated in the investigation or evaluation of the case who either regularly report, or with reference to the particular case have reported, to the office of the prosecuting attorney." Thus, the individual prosecutor's innocence does not obviate the violation.

The State also contends that a defendant is entitled to assert a Brady violation only if the defendant's conviction followed a trial and not if the defendant pleaded guilty. This argument is misplaced, for this Court has previously held that grounds for...

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