Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules That Bad Immigration Advice May Entitle Non-Citizen to Withdraw his Guilty Pleas

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday that a non-citizen who pled guilty to two property crimes in 2009 may be entitled to withdraw his guilty pleas because his attorney failed to properly advise him regarding the effect the convictions would have on his immigration status.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Billy Balthazar.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a case called Padilla v. Kentucky that a criminal defense attorney must advise a client whether a plea carries the risk of deportation.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court thereafter ruled that a defense attorney’s obligation to advise a non-citizen of immigration consequences is more comprehensive.  If immigration law makes is clear that deportation is “presumptively mandatory” or “practically inevitable,” the defense attorney has an obligation to so advise his or her client.  Simply telling the client that he or she is “eligible for deportation” is insufficient under Massachusetts law.

In this case the defendant, who is a permanent resident, ultimately pled guilty to malicious destruction of property under $250 and larceny under $250.  Both crimes are misdemeanors.  The defendant was initially charged with felonies, but his attorney negotiated with the prosecutor to reduce all charges to misdemeanors with the hope that the defendant would not be deported following his guilty pleas.  The defense attorney also urged the defendant to consult with an immigration attorney to explore the possible consequences of guilty pleas, but according to the defense attorney, his client said he knew about potential immigration problems and consequences as a result of his prior interactions with the criminal justice system.  The defendant reportedly insisted on pleading guilty as long as he wouldn’t go to jail, and his guilty pleas were accepted by the trial court in July of 2009.

In July of 2010, the defendant received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).  The letter advised the defendant that he was subject to being taken into custody and deported or removed from the United States based on his guilty pleas in 2009.  Upon receiving the INS letter, the defendant filed a motion to vacate his guilty pleas, arguing that his defense attorney had not correctly advised him of their potential consequences.

The Appeals Court agreed with the defendant that his defense attorney had not properly advised him of the probable immigration consequences to pleading guilty to malicious destruction of property and larceny.  The Court noted that legal research would have revealed that both crimes are classified as “crimes of moral turpitude” and therefore would subject the defendant to presumptive removal from the United States under federal law.  The defense attorney, according to the Appeals Court, was ineffective for not advising his client that presumptive deportation would result from his guilty pleas.  The Appeals Court ordered that the case be returned to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing to determine if the defendant had been prejudiced by his attorney’s incorrect advice.

Convictions for many crimes carry serious collateral consequences that are sometimes harsher than the criminal penalties.  From administrative sanctions such as driver’s license suspensions to immigration consequences as serious as deportation, criminal defendants need to be fully cognizant of how guilty pleas will affect every aspect of their lives, as this case illustrates.