High Court to Review Deportation After Ineffective Plea Counsel

Is it just to deport a long-term, legal resident over a relatively minor drug offense? The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals isn’t sure. That court, along with courts in the Second, Fourth and Fifth Circuits, was sure that deportation was required upon conviction for a drug felony, even if your criminal defense lawyer seriously misled you.

Other circuit courts disagree, however. The Third, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have all ruled otherwise when ineffective criminal defense counsel persuades an immigrant to enter a guilty plea to a deportable offense. Those circuits have apparently ruled that the criminal conviction should be overturned and the guilty plea withdrawn.

In cases where the various circuits of appellate courts disagree on an important point of law, the U.S. Supreme Court will often step in to resolve this so-called “circuit split,” and the high court has agreed to hear the case of a Memphis restaurateur who is being deported after living here legally since 1982.

In 2009, the man was charged with possession of Ecstasy with intent to distribute. He admitted that he did possess the drug and sometimes gave it to friends. With his own admission on the record, he looked to his criminal defense lawyer to get him the best deal possible. The lawyer told him his best shot was to plead guilty and said he could not be deported for doing so. Unfortunately, the criminal defense lawyer did not understand immigration law. The plea bargain resulted in the man being convicted of a drug felony, which subjected him to mandatory deportation.

This is a legal immigrant, age 41, who owns two restaurants in Memphis and has no prior criminal record. He has been contributing to American society for decades. Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit ruled that U.S. law requires us to “exile a productive member of our society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood for committing a relatively small-time drug offense.”

Like so many immigration cases of late, the question before the court is whether our system’s draconian measures should be employed even in cases where the defendant’s rights may have been violated. Is this aspect of our nation’s War on Drugs serving our interests as a society?

Every immigrant deserves high quality criminal defense representation by a lawyer who understands the effect of criminal prosecution on the immigrant’s status. If you have been arrested for any crime — especially a drug crime — make sure your defense lawyer has all of the credentials you need.