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SCOTUS rules in favor of poorly-advised immigrant who pled guilty

A South Korean immigrant will not be deported after pleading guilty to a drug crime after being badly advised by his criminal defense attorney. This is an interesting development, because it involves a guilty plea. If he had tried to get the plea itself reversed, he likely would not have succeeded. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the negative immigration consequences can be averted in such a circumstance.

The case involved a man who had lived in the U.S. legally for nearly 30 years and had built two businesses in Tennessee. His elderly parents are naturalized citizens, and he is the only family member in the country to care for them. He has strong ties to America and no ties to North Korea, which he left as a child.

Unfortunately, he apparently got involved in drug activity. In 2009, he was indicted for possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute. The high court assumed in its opinion that there was very little possibility he would have been acquitted if he went to trial.

The man says he was willing to pay his debt to society, but his main concern was avoiding deportation. When his lawyer told him that pleading guilty would prevent him from being deported, he agreed to do so. His attorney was wrong,

On appeal, the man was represented by Patrick T. McNally, Attorney at Law. They filed a petition with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the guilty plea because his prior representation had been objectively unreasonable. The court found that the first attorney had indeed provided bad advice, but that didn't matter because the man would have been convicted anyway. 

Defendant could have rationally chosen to go to trial

This has long been the standard in many appellate rulings: Even if an error occurred, the case won't be reversed unless that error made a difference in the outcome. The Supreme Court ruled that in this case, even though the man would probably have been convicted if he hadn't pled guilty, he still should have had the chance to make his decision based on correct legal advice. It might have made a difference in whether he would be deported. 

"There is more to consider than simply the likelihood of success at trial," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the 6-2 majority. (Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate.) "The decision whether to plead guilty also involves assessing the respective consequences of a conviction after trial and by plea."

The majority went on to say that it would have been rational for the defendant to choose a trial in order to avoid deportation, no matter how unlikely it was that he would win. Therefore, he should not be stuck with the negative consequences of his lawyer's mistake.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas warned that the court was removing the "assurance that plea deals negotiated in good faith with guilty defendants will remain final." He was joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

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