WASHINGTON — Immigrants are entitled to accurate legal advice on the potential for deportation if they plead guilty to a crime, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a Kentucky case that could affect the nation's more than 12.8 million legal immigrants.
The case, Padilla v. Kentucky, focused on José Padilla, a Honduran-born immigrant who faces deportation after pleading guilty to felony marijuana trafficking. Padilla isn't the so-called "dirty bomber," a U.S. citizen of the same name convicted of conspiring to aid terrorists.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court backed Padilla's position and reversed the judgment of the Kentucky Supreme Court, which had ruled that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of competent legal counsel 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.
"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."
Although Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the court's majority opinion, he expressed concerns that requiring criminal defense attorneys not 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 Styrofoam boxes containing 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 was detained for a year pending investigation of possible deportation.
The following year, Padilla agreed to a plea agreement of reduced prison 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 now faces deportation.
Stephen Kinnaird, who argued the case for Padilla to the Supreme Court, said the decision recognizes "the increased intertwining of criminal and immigration law."
"This should avert many of the tragedies that occur when lawful permanent residents are not advised that a guilty plea, even to minor criminal offenses, would result in their immediate deportation," he said.
Justice Stevens said he doubted whether the decision will affect old plea bargains for immigrants. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already require their trial courts to advise defendants of possible immigration consequences of guilty pleas, Stevens said.