March 31, 2010 -- The Supreme Court ruled in favor today of claims made by a lawful permanent resident of the United States who said his rights were violated when his lawyer failed to tell him that if he pleaded guilty to drug distribution charges he could be deported.
The case involved Jose Padilla, a native of Honduras, who had lived legally in the United States for more than 40 years. Padilla served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 2002, Padilla pleaded guilty to transporting a large amount of marijuana. In court papers, Padilla says his lawyer at the time told him that he "did not have to worry about" his immigration status when he pleaded guilty to the transportation because he had "been in the country so long." The lawyer was mistaken. Under current law, if a noncitizen commits such an offense, deportation is almost mandatory.
Padilla argued that had he known that the drug charges made his deportation almost certain he would have insisted on taking his case to trial.
A 7-2 court held today that Padilla's counsel was obliged to inform him that his guilty plea would lead to his deportation. Justice Stevens wrote, "We agree with Padilla that constitutionally competent counsel would have advised him that his conviction for drug distribution made him subject to automatic deportation."
"It is our responsibility," the court found, "under the Constitution to ensure that no criminal defendant -- whether a citizen or not -- is left to the mercies of incompetent counsel."
The Constitutional Accountability Center praised today's decision. Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel, released a statement saying: "In a resounding victory for the Constitution, the Supreme Court today reaffirmed that the guarantee of fundamental fairness in our Nation's courts applies to non-citizens and citizens alike. In Padilla v. Kentucky, the Court ruled that a lawyer has a constitutional obligation to tell an alien charged with a crime that a guilty plea could result in deportation."
Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented in today's decision writing that Padilla's threatened deportation was a "collateral" consequence of his conviction, and not covered by the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of adequate assistance of counsel.
"The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused a lawyer for his defense against a criminal prosecution -- not for sound advice about the collateral consequences of conviction." wrote Scalia.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to decide how much Padilla's case was affected by ineffective advice .