On Friday, June 23, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a green card holder who pleaded guilty to a crime based on faulty advice from his attorney. Jae Lee, 48, told the high court that he pleaded guilty to a crime based on his attorney’s advice that he would not be deported if he did. This was the wrong advice, and Lee subsequently faced “mandatory deportation” for pleading guilty to an aggravated felony. Since then, Lee has been in custody for seven years as his case proceeded. The Supreme Court ruled in Lee’s favor, holding that Lee was prejudiced as a result of his attorney’s inadequate advice.
Lee came to the United States in 1982 at the age of 13. He is a lawful permanent resident. In 2008, federal officials searched Lee’s house on a tip, where they found drugs, cash, and a loaded rifle. Lee admitted the drugs were his, and a grand jury indicted him on one count of possessing ecstasy with an intent to distribute. He told his attorney he was not a citizen, and repeatedly asked him whether he would face deportation if he pleaded guilty. Lee’s attorney assured him he would not be deported if he accepted a plea. Based on this assurance, Lee accepted the government’s plea and was sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
However, Lee had unknowingly pleaded guilty to an “aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(B), and was subject to mandatory deportation as a result of the plea. This was contrary to the advice of his attorney. Upon learning that he faced deportation, Lee filed a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence. At an evidentiary hearing, both Lee and his plea-stage counsel testified that deportation was “the determinative issue” in his decision to accept the plea. A magistrate recommended Lee’s plea be set aside, but the district court for the Western District of Tennessee denied relief, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
In a 6-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and ruled in Lee’s favor. The Court held that Lee had adequately demonstrated to a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known he would be deported. “Everyone agrees that Lee received objectively unreasonable representation,” the majority opinion held. “The question presented is whether he can show he was prejudiced as a result.” Applying the two-part test from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the high court found that Lee was prejudiced.
In Strickland, the Supreme Court established the standard for determining when a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated by that counsel’s inadequate performance. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must demonstrate: (1) the attorney’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and (2) the attorney’s performance gives rise to a reasonable probability that if the attorney had performed adequately, the result would have been different. In Hill v. Lockhart, the high court held that the two part test in Strickland also applies to the plea stage. 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985).
Here, the high court concluded that under Strickland and supporting cases, Lee was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel. “But for his attorney’s incompetence,” said the majority opinion, “Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation.”
Justice Thomas dissented. He noted that Lee admitted the drugs were in his possession, and a court or jury would have found Lee guilty regardless. “There is no reasonable probability of any other verdict,” Justice Thomas said “A defendant in petitioner’s shoes, therefore, would have suffered the same deportation consequences regardless of whether he accepted a plea or went to trial.”
Justice Thomas also criticized the majority’s application of Strickland. “[T]he Court today holds that a defendant who pleaded guilty need show only that he would have rejected his plea and gone to trial,” Justice Thomas said. “This standard does not appear to be particularly demanding, as even a defendant who has only the ‘smallest chance of success at trial’—relying on nothing more than a ‘Hail Mary’—may be able to satisfy it.”
Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissent, in which Justice Alito partially joined. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The case is Jae Lee v. U.S., No. 16-327, in the U.S. Supreme Court. The full text of the opinion is available here.
A special thanks goes to Armeen Mistry of Cozen O’Connor’s Minneapolis office for writing this article.