Supreme Court: Bad advice on deportation can void guilty plea

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that defendants are entitled to know that the potential consequences of a guilty plea include deportation for noncitizens, a decision that could have broader significance for the more than 12.8 million legal immigrants who live in the U.S.

The case, Padilla v. Kentucky, focused on Jose Padilla, a Honduran-born immigrant who faces deportation after pleading guilty to felony marijuana trafficking. He isn't the U.S. citizen of the same name who was convicted in 2007 of conspiring to aid terrorists.

In a 7-2 decision, the high court reversed the judgment of the Kentucky Supreme Court, which had ruled that the Sixth Amendment's effective-assistance-of-counsel guarantee doesn't protect defendants from incorrect deportation advice because deportation is a "collateral" consequence of conviction. The justices left it to a lower court to determine whether Padilla's guilty plea should be thrown out, however.

"It is our responsibility under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant — whether a citizen or not — is left to the 'mercies of incompetent counsel,' " Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion. "To satisfy this responsibility, we now hold that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation."

Though Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the court's majority opinion, he expressed concerns that requiring criminal defense attorneys who aren't well-versed in immigration law to advise clients about the consequences of a guilty plea could "lead to much confusion and needless litigation."

Justice Antonin Scalia, in writing the dissent, agreed with Alito's concerns.

"In the best of all possible worlds, criminal defendants contemplating a guilty plea ought to be advised of all serious collateral consequences of conviction, and surely ought not to be misadvised," Scalia wrote. "The Constitution, however, is not an all-purpose tool for judicial construction of a perfect world: and when we ignore its text in order to make it that, we often find ourselves swinging a sledge where a tack hammer is needed."

In 2001, Padilla, a Vietnam War veteran, truck driver and legal permanent U.S. resident for 40 years, was pulled over at a Kentucky weigh station and arrested when boxes that contained 1,033 pounds of marijuana were found in his 18-wheeler. Padilla was charged with several state crimes and felony drug trafficking. He originally pleaded not guilty but he was detained for a year pending investigation of possible deportation.

The following year Padilla agreed to a plea agreement of reduced jail time after his court-appointed attorney told him that a guilty plea wouldn't affect his immigration status.

That advice was wrong.

Padilla was sentenced to five years in prison and five years of probation and faces deportation.


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