Yesterday, in Padilla v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court finally got around to affirming and acknowledging that which most of us in the field already knew: immigration consequences matter.
Writing for a 5-4 majority (7-2, if you count the concurrences), Justice Stevens opined that when the immigration consequences of a plea are clear, it is Constitutionally deficient for a defense attorney to neglect to inform the defendant of those consequences. Well, duh.
As SCOTUS itself recognized in INS v. St. Cyr, for the non-citizen defendant, the fact of deportation may be the single most important factor in deciding whether to plead guilty. We’ve known this forever.
Moreover, several states, including Connecticut, require courts, by statute, to inform defendants during the plea canvass that their plea might have immigration consequences. In cases where the immigration consequences are unclear, Justice Stevens writes, the defense attorney must meet at least that threshold.
Immigration law can be complex, and it is a legal specialty of its own. Some members of the bar who represent clients facing criminal charges, in either state or federal court or both, may not be well versed in it. There will, therefore, undoubtedly be numerous situations in which the deportation consequences of a particular plea are unclear or uncertain. The duty of the private practitioner in such cases is more limited. When the law is not succinct and straightforward (as it is in many of the scenarios posited by JUSTICE ALITO), a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a non-citizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences. But when the deportation consequence is truly clear, as it was in this case, the duty to give correct advice is equally clear.
There may be some who throw their hands up in the air at yet another thing the defense attorney has to do or learn. In a lot of situations – and I’m looking at you, public defender offices – the sheer volume of business is such that it’s hard to keep up with changes in substantive criminal law, let alone familiarize oneself with the immigration consequences.
I don’t think that’s a legitimate complaint: for one, the defense attorney is already ethically and morally bound to advise the client of all matters that are relevant to the client’s decision to plead guilty. I’m sorry to say that our role as counsel is not limited to just the criminal arena. The consequences of a conviction extend far beyond the local penitentiary these days. Housing, immigration, child custody are all consequences that stem from the fact of a conviction and are all issues that are important to the client.
It helps to think about the kind of lawyer you want to be. Do you want to be a lawyer who does the bare minimum and relies on the judicial dam that stems the tide of ineffective assistance of counsel claims? Or do you want to feel good about yourself when you go to bed at night, knowing that you’ve accurately and honestly helped someone make a decision that will severely impact their life?
And how difficult is it, really? The big ones are no-brainers: robbery, murder, assault, rape, kidnapping. All will result in deportation. The drug offenses are where it’s difficult. But if that’s your stock-in-trade and you don’t familiarize yourself with the immigration consequences, you will lose business or gain a bad reputation. It’s that simple. Even simpler, call an immigration attorney. Every single reputable immigration attorney I know will gladly take a few minutes of his or her time to give you a rough approximation of the consequences, if any, of the plea and even tell you how you can structure the plea to avoid deportation (if possible).
The effort required to discover this pertinent information is minimal and you owe it to yourself and your client to make it.
Finally, just a reminder of the ethical responsibilities. The Rules of Professional Conduct states:
Rule 2.1 Advisor
In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.