U.S. Supreme Court

Immigrant who got bad legal advice is entitled to vacate his conviction, Supreme Court rules

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An immigrant whose lawyer wrongly told him he would not be deported as a result of a guilty plea is entitled to vacate his conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 6-2 decision.

The court ruled for Jae Lee, who argued he would not have accepted the plea deal had he known of the consequences. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion (PDF).

Lee came to the United States at the age of 13 with his family. He has lived here legally since his arrival in 1982. Based on his lawyer’s advice, Lee pleaded guilty to possession of Ecstasy with intent to distribute.

Lee had argued that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance, a fact conceded by the government. He also argued he was prejudiced as a result.

In some cases, a defendant making out a case of prejudice would have had to show he would be better off going to trial, Roberts said. An example is when a defendant’s decision about going to trial turns on his prospects of success and the prospects were affected by his lawyer’s error, such as failure to suppress an improper confession.

But that showing isn’t necessary in Lee’s case, Roberts said. Lee says he would have gambled on a trial, risking more jail time for the small chance of an acquittal and the ability to remain in the United States.

“In the unusual circumstances of this case,” Roberts said, “we conclude that Lee has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that was mostly joined by Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the case.

“The court today holds that a defendant can undo a guilty plea, well after sentencing and in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt, because he would have chosen to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success if his attorney had properly advised him of the immigration consequences of his plea,” Thomas wrote. “Neither the Sixth Amendment nor this court’s precedents support that conclusion.”

The case is Lee v. United States.

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