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Does poor legal advice prevent deportation?

Monday marked the final day of the 2016-17 term for the Supreme Court of the United States and, as anticipated, it proved to be an exceptionally busy day. Indeed, the court released opinions in six cases, including the one examining President Trump's proposed travel ban.

While much of the recent dialogue in the press and legal circles has understandably revolved around these final cases, it's important not to overlook some of the other cases decided by SCOTUS in the days leading up to its Monday finale. For example, consider the decision in Lee v. United States, released this past Friday, which examines the important issue of whether an immigrant who is facing deportation because of substandard legal advice should be given a reprieve.

Lee v. U.S. -- the facts

The defendant, Lee, came to the U.S. from Korea with his family back in 1982 when he was only 13. They settled in New York, and Lee, who maintained no ties to his place of birth, moved to Memphis, Tennessee after graduating from high school.

Here, Lee, a lawful resident (i.e., green card holder), eventually became an established restaurateur. According to federal law enforcement officials, he also became interested in the drug ecstasy, taking it recreationally and eventually becoming a dealer.

Indeed, in 2008, federal law enforcement executed a search warrant on his Memphis-area home, uncovering more than $32,000 in cash, a loaded rifle and 88 ecstasy tablets. He later admitted that the illegal drugs were his and that he had given them to his friends.

Lee was subsequently charged with possession with intent to distribute, a rather serious offense. Thereafter, he retained the services of an attorney who immediately entered into plea discussions with federal prosecutors.

The attorney, in turn, informed Lee that going to trial was an extremely risky proposition and instead urged him to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. While Lee ultimately agreed to this course of action, he repeatedly asked beforehand whether the criminal proceedings could result in his deportation, something he wished to avoid at all costs.

The attorney incorrectly assured Lee multiples times that he didn't need to worry about his immigration status and, acting on these false assurances, Lee pleaded guilty to the federal drug charges, and was given a year and a day in prison.

He soon learned, however, that he had pleaded guilty to an "aggravated felony" under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which essentially meant that he would indeed be deported upon completion of his sentence.

Lee immediately filed a motion to vacate the conviction and sentence, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel. His arguments proved unavailing, however, with the district court denying his motion.

An appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit proved equally unsuccessful, with the appellate court holding that he was not prejudiced by the poor performance of his attorney, as even if the correct legal advice concerning the guilty plea and deportation was provided, it would have been of no assistance. In other words, even if he had gone to trial based on the desire to avoid deportation, the case against him was so strong that he would have almost certainly lost and been deported.

Undeterred, Lee petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which SCOTUS granted. We'll examine what exactly the nation's high court had to say about this fascinating case in our next post.

In the meantime, any non-U.S. citizens who are facing deportation after pleading guilty to a crime must seriously consider speaking with a skilled legal professional who can work to uncover whether their original criminal attorney failed to inform them of how a plea could affect their immigration status -- something that provides them with chance to fight.

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