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US Supreme Court: Padilla v. Kentucky: New Constitutional Dimensions of Legal Malpractice Announced

No. 08–651. Argued October 13, 2009—Decided March 31, 2010

Petitioner Padilla, a lawful permanent resident of the United States for over 40 years, faces deportation after pleading guilty to drug-distribution charges in Kentucky. In postconviction proceedings, he claims that his counsel not only failed to advise him of this consequence before he entered the plea, but also told him not to worry about deportation since he had lived in this country so long. He alleges that he would have gone to trial had he not received this incorrect advice. The Kentucky Supreme Court denied Padilla post conviction relief on the ground that the Sixth Amendment’s effective-assistance-of-counsel guarantee does not protect defendants from er-roneous deportation advice because deportation is merely a “collateral” consequence of a conviction.

Held: Because counsel must inform a client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation, Padilla has sufficiently alleged that his counsel was constitutionally deficient. Whether he is entitled to relief depends on whether he has been prejudiced, a matter not addressed here. Pp. 2–18.

(a) Changes to immigration law have dramatically raised the stakes of a noncitizen’s criminal conviction. While once there was only a narrow class of deportable offenses and judges wielded broad discretionary authority to prevent deportation, immigration reforms have expanded the class of deportable offenses and limited judges’authority to alleviate deportation’s harsh consequences. Because the drastic measure of deportation or removal is now virtually inevitablefor a vast number of noncitizens convicted of crimes, the importance of accurate legal advice for noncitizens accused of crimes has never been more important. Thus, as a matter of federal law, deportation is an integral part of the penalty that may be imposed on noncitizen de-fendants who plead guilty to specified crimes. Pp. 2–6.

(b) Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, applies to Padilla’s claim. Before deciding whether to plead guilty, a defendant is entitled to “the effective assistance of competent counsel.” McMann v. Richardson, 397 U. S. 759, 771. The Supreme Court of Kentucky rejected Padilla’s ineffectiveness claim on the ground that the advice he sought about deportation concerned only collateral matters. However, this Court has never distinguished between direct and collateral consequences in defining the scope of constitutionally “reason-able professional assistance” required under Strickland, 466 U. S., at 689.

The question whether that distinction is appropriate need not be considered in this case because of the unique nature of deportation. Although removal proceedings are civil, deportation is intimately related to the criminal process, which makes it uniquely difficult to classify as either a direct or a collateral consequence. Because that distinction is thus ill-suited to evaluating a Strickland claim concerning the specific risk of deportation, advice regarding deportation is not categorically removed from the ambit of the Sixth Amend-ment right to counsel. Pp. 7–9.

(c) To satisfy Strickland’s two-prong inquiry, counsel’s representation must fall “below an objective standard of reasonableness,” 466 U.S., at 688, and there must be “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” id., at 694. The first, constitutional deficiency, is necessarily linked to the legal community’s practice and expectations. Id., at 688. The weight of prevailing professional norms supports the view that counsel must advise her client regarding the deportation risk. And this Court has recognized the importance to the client of “ ‘[p]reserving the . . . right to remain in the United States’ ”and “preserving the possibility of” discretionary relief from deporta-tion. INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U. S. 289, 323. Thus, this is not a hard case in which to find deficiency: The consequences of Padilla’s plea could easily be determined from reading the removal statute, his deportation was presumptively mandatory, and his counsel’s advice was incorrect. There will, however, undoubtedly be numerous situations in which the deportation consequences of a plea are unclear. In those cases, a criminal defense attorney need do no more than advise a noncitizen client that pending criminal charges may carry adverse immigration consequences. But when the deportation consequence is truly clear, as it was here, the duty to give correct advice is equally clear. Accepting Padilla’s allegations as true, he has sufficiently alleged constitutional deficiency to satisfy Strickland’s first prong.Whether he can satisfy the second prong, prejudice, is left for the Kentucky courts to consider in the first instance. Pp. 9–12.

(d) The Solicitor General’s proposed rule—that Strickland should be applied to Padilla’s claim only to the extent that he has alleged affirmative misadvice—is unpersuasive. And though this Court must be careful about recognizing new grounds for attacking the validity of guilty pleas, the 25 years since Strickland was first applied to ineffective-assistance claims at the plea stage have shown that pleas are less frequently the subject of collateral challenges than convictions after a trial. Also, informed consideration of possible deportation canbenefit both the State and noncitizen defendants, who may be able toreach agreements that better satisfy the interests of both parties. This decision will not open the floodgates to challenges of convictions obtained through plea bargains. Cf. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U. S. 52,58. Pp. 12–16. 253 S. W. 3d 482, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opin-ion concurring in the judgment, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined

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Posted in: Criminal Law, Federal