Monday, June 29, 2015

Judge’s Admonishments about Possible Deportation Did Not Foreclose Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Defendant Innocent Rutahagara Batamula pleaded guilty to making false statements right after a judge’s plea colloquy that the felonies committed were “likely” to result in deportation. However, prior to the Batamula’s plea, he was never advised by counsel that conviction would result in deportation. Had the Batamula known of deportation or the possibility thereof, he would have “‘refused to make the plea,’ would have pleaded not guilty, and would have insisted on going to trial.”

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of Batamula’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment and remanded.  The district court held that when a judge informs the defendant of possible deportation in the plea colloquy, counsel’s failure to advise on immigration consequences is thereby “cured,” with defendant’s relevant constitutional claim forfeited or waived, estopping the defendant from showing prejudice. The panel disagreed since “forfeiture of certain constitutional claims,” like effective counsel, occur only when “the plea is entered knowingly and voluntarily and with competent assistance and advice by defense counsel.” The defendant did not have the latter.

The risk of deportation, per the Supreme Court, is akin to “banishment or exile” and warrants the need for counsel to inform the defendant of the consequences. The Court in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 S. Ct. 356 (2010), recognized that “preserving the client’s right to remain in the United States may be more important to the client than any potential jail sentence.” Additionally, defense counsel has certain, basic obligations to the defendant in complying with the Sixth Amendment. These include “effectively investigating and advising the client regarding immigration consequences before the client decides whether to plead guilty.”

The panel reasoned that a judge’s admonishments “during a plea colloquy are not a substitute for effective assistance of counsel,” nor do they “supersede errors by the defense counsel.” These admonishments also do not “foreclose” the defendant from demonstrating prejudice when counsel is ineffective. Further, even if counsel is ineffective and a defendant accepts his plea intelligently, voluntarily, and knowingly, the Supreme Court has rejected arguments that the defendant was “not deprived of any legal benefit to which he was entitled.” Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1407-08 (2012). In a similar decision, the Court in Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1384 (2012), took the right to counsel further, asserting that even if the trial was fair and the defendant was guilty, the defendant was still entitled to effective assistance of counsel and can bring a claim of prejudice if counsel was otherwise.

Thanks to FPD Intern Adam Pena for this post.

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