When guilty means deported

The Supreme Court has recognized what would be obvious to any layperson: A competent defense attorney must inform a client that a guilty plea might lead not only to prison time but to deportation from the country.

The court last week ruled 7 to 2 for Jose Padilla, a legal resident from Honduras who was wrongly told by his lawyer that pleading guilty to a marijuana trafficking charge wouldn't change his immigration status because he'd been in the country for more than 40 years. In an opinion for himself and four colleagues, Justice John Paul Stevens said that "deportation is an integral part -- indeed sometimes the most important part -- of the penalty that may be imposed on noncitizen defendants who plead guilty to specific crimes." He noted that, because judges have lost their previous authority to block deportations of immigrants, accurate legal advice "has never been more important."

That's especially true because the interplay of state and federal laws can target an immigrant for deportation for a minor offense and not only for an "aggravated felony," as intended by the law. The court is currently studying the case of a Texas man who could be deported to Mexico for possessing one tablet of an anti-anxiety drug after he pleaded guilty the year before to having less than 2 ounces of marijuana.

Commonsensical as the court's conclusion might seem, the majority had to address fears that requiring defense attorneys to make known one "collateral" consequence of a guilty plea -- deportation -- would require them to be experts on every conceivable indirect result of a conviction, from loss of child custody to revocation of a driver's license to unemployment.

But Stevens' majority opinion stops this "parade of horribles" in its tracks. Unlike the other consequences of a guilty plea -- some of which may be unknown to a hard-pressed a defense lawyer -- deportation is so central to loss of liberty that it is easy for the court to draw a bright line. Henceforth, competent defense attorneys serving legal U.S. residents must be educated about the immigration consequences of their advice. It isn't enough, as Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested in a concurring opinion, that a lawyer refrain from offering inaccurate advice and refer the client to an immigration attorney if he has further questions.

This decision doesn't guarantee that Padilla won't be deported. Under Supreme Court precedents, he must also show that his case wouldn't have ended up the same way without the bad advice. If Padilla is convicted at trial, he may still be forced to leave the country. Still, his successful lawsuit is a victory for thousands of immigrants who each year face deportation in addition to the justice meted out to other defendants.

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