Failure to inform the defendant he would be automatically deported was prejudicial.
The defendant, a citizen of Mexico, was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Following his arrest, and throughout the plea negotiation process, the defendant's purported primary concern was the impact a conviction could have on his status as a lawful permanent resident. The government offered to drop the possession with intent to distribute charge if the defendant would plead guilty to the conspiracy charge. His attorney advised him that if he pled guilty, deportation was a mere possibility that he could fight in immigration court. Unfortunately, his attorney was wrong - conspiracy to distribute cocaine is an "aggravated felony" subject to mandatory deportation. He ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to 24 months.
The plea allowed him to avoid the five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but not deportation. After learning that he faced mandatory deportation, the defendant moved under 28 U.S.C. §2255 to vacate his conviction on the ground that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied the petition without holding an evidentiary hearing and without addressing whether trial counsel's performance was deficient, ultimately finding the defendant could not show prejudice, citing a one-sentence, generic waiver in the plea agreement.
After being granted a certificate of appealability, the defendant appealed and raised ineffective assistance of counsel. The Fourth Circuit explained that to show "prejudice, a criminal defendant must prove that there is a reasonable probability that, without his counsel's deficient performance, the result of the proceeding in which the deficiency occurred would have been different." Further, in the context of a guilty plea, where "deficient performance causes a defendant to accept a plea bargain he might not have otherwise, the defendant must point to evidence that demonstrates a reasonable probability that, with an accurate understanding of the implications of pleading guilty, he would have rejected the 7 Sentencing Paitners deal."
The court concluded that the district court "erred by giving dispositive weight to limited language from the plea agreement." "Giving dispositive weight to boilerplate language from a plea agreement is at odds with Strickland's fact-dependent prejudice analysis." The court further explained that "to determine whether a particular defendant would have rejected a plea deal, we look to evidence regarding what is important to the defendant asserting the ineffective assistance claim."
After reviewing the record, the court found "little doubt that avoiding deportation was [the defendant's] main priority." "Most significantly, [the defendant] has lived in the United States since he was seven years old. His family and his life are here in the United States." The defendant also stated that he would have insisted on going to trial if he had known that pleading guilty would have resulted in deportation. "[W]e find the evidence demonstrates a reasonable probability that, had [the defendant] known the true and certain extent of the consequences of his guilty plea, he would have refused it."
The matter was reversed and remanded.