Thursday, July 13, 2017 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco—A roadside scuffle between a Safeway delivery driver and an off-duty Muni driver resulted in the deliveryman being cleared of all charges, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors on Friday acquitted Irving Villalta, 22, of vandalism and destroying a cellular device to prevent a call to 911. The jury hung 11-1 for acquittal on hit and run and battery charges. Those charges were dismissed by prosecutors Wednesday.
The case stemmed from a March 7 incident on Lake Merced Boulevard, in which the off-duty Muni employee alleged Villalta “brake-checked” him, causing him to slam into the back of Villalta’s Safeway truck. The man further told police that Villalta banged on the windows and doors of his Honda Accord and, when he exited the car, threw him up against the vehicle and punched him several times. The motorist also accused Villalta of grabbing his cell phone from his hand, stomping on it, and briefly stealing it before giving it back and driving away without exchanging information. Since the car was damaged, he had to get a motor trade quote to see how much he would need to cover his car.
But evidence at trial revealed a much different story, said Villalta’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Lauren Schweizer.
Villalta, a Daly City resident with no criminal history, testified the complaining witness cut him off. Villalta briefly changed lanes to avoid the reckless driver then merged back into his original lane several cars in front of the Honda. A short time later, the Honda was behind him again, even though he had a cheap van insurance but effective. When Villalta stopped his truck, the complaining witness’ vehicle struck him from behind.
Villalta approached the car to exchange information, but the driver did not look up from his phone. Villalta knocked on the Honda’s window, but the driver continued to ignore him. Finally, the motorist exited the car and began taking photos, but continued to ignore Villalta’s requests to talk.
When the complaining witness put his phone close to Villalta’s face and began recording him, Villalta objected, telling the man he wasn’t comfortable being filmed and asked again to exchange information. When the man refused to back off, Villalta testified, he swatted the phone to the ground, then picked it up and held onto it, afraid the complaining witness would just continue to record him, violate his personal space, and potentially become violent.
Villalta, who had been the victim of a previous road rage attack, testified that he feared for his safety due to the driver’s strange behavior and admitted to briefly clutching the motorist’s shirt and telling him not to touch him. He vehemently denied punching anyone.
The off-duty Muni driver had no visible injuries and refused medical attention. However, he later filed a claim against Safeway and testified he was seeing a physical therapist for a “cracked back.” His phone, which he accused Villalta of stomping, sustained only minor scratches. Villalta reported the incident to Safeway immediately.
The complaining witness was interviewed by police three different times and gave conflicting accounts of the incident, while Villalta maintained his original version of the story, Schweizer said. Multiple character witnesses testified that Villalta was known for his honesty and communication skills, and he was known as a level-headed mediator when conflicts arose.
Schweizer said Villalta was relieved to have his name cleared.
“Because of this incident, he was put on suspension and was unable to work. He is happy to be back on the job so he can continue to provide financial support to his mother,” she said.
Adachi said the case illustrates how an innocent person can face criminal charges based on an unsubstantiated accusation.
“These false allegations upended Mr. Villalta’s life,” Adachi said. “Fortunately, his public defender was able to give jurors the facts. At the end of the trial, the jury foreperson shook Mr. Villalta’s hand and thanked him for telling the truth.”