U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Says Lawyers Must Inform Clients of Deportation Risks


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that lawyers have a Sixth Amendment obligation to warn their clients when their guilty pleas can result in deportation.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion (PDF) finding that the lawyer for Jose Padilla should have advised him that a guilty plea to transporting marijuana would make him subject to automatic deportation.

“When the deportation consequence is truly clear, as it was in this case, the duty to give correct advice is equally clear,” Stevens wrote.

“We now hold that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation,” Stevens said. “Our long-standing Sixth Amendment precedents, the seriousness of deportation as a consequence of a criminal plea, and the concomitant impact of deportation on families living lawfully in this country demand no less.”

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas argued in dissent that majority was seeking to make the Constitution “an all-purpose tool for judicial construction of a perfect world.”

Padilla alleged his lawyer had assured him that he did not have to worry about deportation because he had been in the country for so long. He never got a hearing on the claim. He will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea if a court on remand determines he was prejudiced by the bad advice.

Padilla was a Honduran native who had served in Vietnam and was a legal permanent resident in the United States for 40 years before he was caught with 1,000 pounds of marijuana in his truck.

The state of Kentucky had argued that lawyers are obligated only to make sure their clients understand the direct consequences of a guilty plea, rather than the collateral consequences such as deportation.

The United States took a middle ground in an amicus brief, arguing that even if there were a Sixth Amendment violation, Padilla’s guilty plea must stand because evidence of guilt was overwhelming.

Stevens’ opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer.

A concurring opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said a criminal defense lawyer provides ineffective assistance if he or she misleads a noncitizen about the consequences of conviction. But the lawyer should not have an obligation to advise the client other than to warn of possible adverse consequences and to advise the client to seek an immigration lawyer’s advice, they said.

ABA President Carolyn Lamm said in a statement (PDF) that the ruling “rightly places the burden on criminal defense lawyers to understand that pleading guilty to certain crimes will result in deportation, and acknowledges that deportation can be an even more important penalty” to a noncitizen than a jail sentence. The ABA submitted an amicus brief (PDF) in support of Padilla.

Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion that was joined by Thomas.

“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 said. “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.”

Updated at 5:55 p.m. to include comment from Lamm.

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