Plea bargains are notoriously rough dispensers of justice. The guilty, cutting deals with overburdened prosecutors, often get off with too few consequences. The innocent, tired of fighting, accept too many. And sometimes, a guilty plea changes defendants' lives in ways they never imagine. Specifically, it gets them kicked out of the country. That's something defendants should, in fact, understand, a state Court of Appeals ruling confirmed yesterday.
The case concerns an immigrant and legal resident named Jose Martinez. (The ruling does not say where Martinez is from and his attorney could not be immediately reached.) In April 2008, a drug task force raided Gonzalez' home and found three baggies of cocaine on the kitchen table, a one-kilo brick of coke in the garage and $4,000 in cash. Shortly afterward, he pled guilty to possessing drugs with intent to sell.
He says his attorney at the time--someone who admitted in court documents that he knew "very little about immigration law"--never told him that in pleading guilty he was subjecting himself to a mandatory deportation order, as required by federal law.
Martinez later tried to withdraw his plea, but a Walla Walla Superior Court judge wouldn't let him, noting that Martinez had signed a statement that indicated his crime was "grounds for deportation."
Of course, people sign documents all the time without reading the fine print. And last month, in a little-reported case called State v. Sandoval, the state Supreme Court ruled that defendants have a right to be told directly by their attorneys that they could be deported should they plead guilty.
Yesterday's ruling cites the Sandoval case in directing the trial court to allow Gonzalez to withdraw his plea. Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, says he sees this ruling as "an important follow-up" to last month's case. Even if attorneys don't know a lot about Byzantine immigration law, they need to find out.
Adams notes that an immigration project of the Washington Defender Association is available to provide just such information. If attorneys instead "bury their heads it the sand," to use Adams' words, they will be officially rendered--as was Martinez' former lawyer yesterday--"ineffective."