The question of when a criminal defendant is entitled to a do-over because his lawyer failed to correctly advise him of the immigration consequences of a conviction in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky is getting more attention from the federal appeals courts. Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Rodolfo Hernandez v. United States, No. 13-10352 (decided Mar. 2, 2015). In a brief, nine-page decision, the court concluded that Mr. Hernandez who made allegations about shoddy lawyering against his former attorney should not have had his case summarily dismissed by a lower court; instead, the appeals court ruled, Mr. Hernandez should have been given a chance to build his case and climb what is almost always the very steep hill toward post conviction relief.
The story behind the alleged bad lawyering although pretty typical has some interesting twists. Mr. Hernandez claimed that his former attorney did not give him correct legal advice about whether he would be deported back to Cuba — his home country — if he pled guilty to a federal drug trafficking charge. The lawyer had mixed opinions about the issue. Because of the lack of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba it was not unusual for Cuban nationals convicted of crimes in the United States to remain in a sort of immigration limbo; technically subject to deportation but never actually being deported. At one point, because of this unique situation, the lawyer asked the judge for his insight, but the judge refused to get involved. Mr. Hernandez ultimately entered a plea — notably to every charge that was filed against him by the Government — and while he was serving time on his conviction received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security telling him that he may be subject to deportation.
The standard for proving a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is a high one. Even if a lawyer did give his client bad advice, the client, in order to secure post conviction relief, must still have to prove that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different “but for” counsel’s poor performance — the so-called prejudice test. This is where most ineffective assistance claims run into trouble, as was the case with the Rasheed case, recently discussed in this blog.
But in a departure from how other appeals courts have ruled on the issue of prejudice — generally finding no prejudice because, among other reasons, there existed in the words of those courts overwhelming evidence of guilt — the appeals court in this case sided with the defendant. It did so because it accepted Mr. Hernandez’s claim that had he known about the risk of deportation that he, in fact, faced, he would not have pled guilty but instead would have opted to fight the charges at trial. Of course, had Mr. Hernandez gone to trial and lost, he would have received a much stiffer penalty than the one he received following his guilty plea. But to the court this trade off would have been a “rational” one for someone in Mr. Hernandez’s position whose main interest was avoiding deportation.
It will be interesting to see how the case unfolds now that Mr. Hernandez has been given the green-light to fully present his case to the trial judge. I expect that this won’t be the last time we hear from the Eleventh Circuit on Mr. Hernandez’s plight, although I fear that the next time the Eleventh Circuit speaks on this matter, it will not be in Mr. Hernandez’s favor.
The decision in Hernandez v. United States, No. 13-10352 can be accessed here.