Padilla: It’s not that complicated, really

[Yes, another Padilla v. Kentucky post. Sorry, suck it up.]

Padilla is what some might call a “landmark” case; altering the landscape at least for the defense practitioner. So, with reason, it has generated much discussion among those of us who’ve chosen to make our views and opinions public. And with any such new “landmark” decision, there’s a difference of opinion as to the impact and specifically in this case, the impact on the duties and responsibilities of the defense lawyer.

Scott has written several posts bemoaning the lack of clarity in immigration law and warning us all that we now have this awesome burden that really isn’t one we can bear. In his latest missive, he enlists the help of Darth Vader Justin Bieber Ken “I used to be a defense lawyer” Lammers at KrimLaw.

There’s nothing better than the simple life, where a handy “cheat sheet” gives a laundry list of everything you need to know.  Print it out. Carry it to court. Be brilliant.  Except…that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Padilla duty is largely a no brainer at the extremes, where the immigrant defendant pleads to possession of 457 kilos of cocaine with intent to sell (it’s a little large for personal use anyway), or doing 37 in a 35 mile per hour zone, with or without your windows excessively tinted.  The problem is toward the middle of the spectrum, where all this mushy information does little to inform.

[That link is inserted by me.] If I understand Scott’s point correctly, he’s saying that the decision places an unfair burden on us to investigate, learn and give advice about a really complicated area of law, in the mushy in-the-middle circumstances of immigration consequences.

I’m not sure that’s what Padilla requires. Let’s go back to the decision and see what Justice Stevens said:

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.

This is exactly the scenario that Scott writes about. So what does the Court have to say about it?:

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.

I’m not sure there’s anything complicated about that. Now, one might turn around and argue that it’s difficult to know in which situations the consequences are “truly clear”. Perhaps. But those situations aren’t tough to figure out. Unless you’re saying “hey, I don’t really want to figure out in what circumstances my client will be deported”.

Ken writes:

I can remember talking to State officials and defense attorneys who specialized in Spanish language defendants and hearing the same thing more than once, “Yes, the feds can deport, but they don’t want to be bothered unless there is a violent felony.” Of course, it wasn’t always phrased quite so blandly. So, the attorney in Padilla’s case may have been giving what was basically reality based advice based upon experience. I haven’t seen the feds swoop in and deport people therefore, they shan’t do it to you. Of course, the problem with this is that the feds can alter their behavior randomly and unilaterally. And, in Padilla’s case someone in the federal government thought that transporting a tractor-trailer full of marijuana might just be a reason to deport someone.

There’s quite the difference between “this is a deportable crime” and “yeah, sure you can be deported, but you won’t be, really”. The former is Constitutionally sound advice; the latter is not. Just because the Feds may or may not deport your client doesn’t absolve you of the duty to inform your client that he is subject to deportation.

And that’s all Padilla requires you to do (which makes it seem more and more like an empty decision, the more I think about it): tell the client there’s a chance he will be deported. It does not impose a duty on you to try and figure out how to prevent him from being deported, but certainly no one will complain if you do.

In the comments to Scott’s post, another blogger writes:

The real problem is that none of the cheat sheets are state specific – criminal law is state specific – immigration law is not – and it is here where these two intersect. You’ve got to know the specifics of the state law and most immigration practicioners do not. And the answer is always, it depends.

Personal experience with immigration lawyers varies and the range of skill within the immigration law bar varies just as much as it does in the criminal law field. But any immigration lawyer worth his degree and reputation will absolutely know the intricacies of the law of the state in which he practices. He has to. After all, most people are deported based on state convictions. So find a good one, talk to him or her. Every reputable immigration lawyer I’ve called has been more than happy to not only give me an educated guess on whether the client is deportable but also on how to avoid that deportation and what the client should plead to.

The bottom line, as far as I can see, is this: If the consequences are clear (and they usually are, save for the myriad drug offenses), then tell your client that he will be subject to deportation. If the consequences aren’t clear, then tell your client that he may be subject to deportation. If he wants to know more, find out. Call an immigration lawyer, go to a CLE. Unless you’ve been catering solely to clients who are citizens, this is going to come up again and again. Spending a day or so learning about the immigration consequences or picking up a phone and talking to someone knows will only make you a better lawyer. Maybe some of you can leverage that into a niche practice.

But remember that the obligation is to the client and the client only. The more you know, the better you serve the client.

[What I think will really end up happening here is that courts will start including an “immigration consequences” portion to their plea canvasses, much like that which is required here in CT by statute: “do you understand that this plea may result in deportation or removal?”. Which would – and does – satisfy Padilla and everyone’s obligation.]

6 thoughts on “Padilla: It’s not that complicated, really

  1. Mirriam

    I’m hoping this plays out the way you predict it will. I went to a discussion on Padilla with a bunch of immigration lawyers yesterday. I was the only one from the criminal defense bar there. While they have a good idea of what people should plead to in order to avoid criminal consequences, I don’t think they have a good grasp of the intricacies of the criminal law. That’s where you come in.

    1. Gideon Post author

      Well exactly. No one’s saying there’s an easy answer for everything, but it’s out there and it’s not as difficult to find as you might believe.

  2. Michael Marr

    The problem with “truly clear” is that it changes circuit to circuit. The handy cheat sheet provided indicates in New York they would not deport you for a straight probation sentence. In the 11th Circuit – Georgia they would. And some circuits like the 9th recognize a state first offender whereas in the 11th they don’t. So truly clear has these little side roads your client can travel to avoid or ride smack into deportation. I believe the latest modern word is Removal, by the way, since technically/historically, those here illegally cannot be be deported since they do not have a “port.”

  3. Milan Bhatt

    What makes this decision so important in practice is that it creates a basis for appealing a conviction in cases where criminal defense attorneys, who, even when the potential for resulting deportation is clear as day fail to raise it as a likely consequence or downplay the risk. Its meaningful in that it sets a basic standard and allows the potential for relief.

  4. Hisham

    I would respectfully disagree that ‘including an “immigration consequences” portion to their plea canvasses’ would satisfy Padilla. Padilla does not involve the court’s duty to advise on immigration consequences. It involves the constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, a defect in which the court cannot cure.


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