Padilla v. Kentucky: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Should Criminal Defendants Be Notified of Immigration Consequences?

classical facade of stone with steps, sculptures, columns, and a pediment with sculpture
West Entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

In Padilla v. Kentucky (2010), the Supreme Court examined an attorney’s legal obligation to inform a client that a guilty plea might impact their immigration status. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court found that, under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, an attorney must advise their client if a plea may result in deportation.

Fast Facts: Padilla v. Kentucky

  • Case Argued: October 13, 2009
  • Decision Issued: March 31, 2010
  • Petitioner: Jose Padilla
  • Respondent: Kentucky
  • Key Questions: Under the Sixth Amendment, are attorneys required to notify non-citizen clients that a guilty plea might result in deportation?
  • Majority: Justices Roberts, Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor
  • Dissenting: Scalia, Thomas
  • Ruling: If a client faces immigration consequences when entering a guilty plea, even if those consequences are unclear, an attorney must advise their client of them under the Sixth Amendment

Facts of the Case

In 2001, Jose Padilla, a licensed commercial truck driver, was indicted for possession and trafficking of marijuana, possession of marijuana paraphernalia, and failing to display a weight and distance tax number on his vehicle. Padilla accepted a plea bargain after consulting with his attorney. He pleaded guilty to the first three counts in exchange for dismissal of the final charge. Padilla’s attorney had assured him that the plea would not impact his immigration status. Padilla had been a lawful permanent resident in the United States for close to 40 years and was a veteran who had served during the Vietnam War.

Padilla realized after his guilty plea that his attorney had been incorrect. He faced deportation as a result of the plea. Padilla filed for a post-conviction proceeding on the basis that his attorney had given him false advice. If he had known about the immigration consequences of his guilty plea, he would have taken his chances at trial, he argued.

The case eventually landed in the Kentucky Supreme Court. The court focused on two terms: "direct consequence" and "collateral consequence". Under the Sixth Amendment, attorneys are required to notify their clients of all direct consequences related to their charges. Attorneys are not required to notify clients of collateral consequences. These consequences are incidental to a plea deal. They include forfeiture of a license or loss of voting rights. The Kentucky Supreme Court viewed immigration status as a collateral consequence. Padilla could not argue that his counsel’s advice was ineffective because counsel was not required to give advice in the first place.

Constitutional Issues

Does the Sixth Amendment require notification of possible deportation when criminal defense attorneys are working with clients who have immigrated to the U.S.?

If an attorney incorrectly states that a legal action will not impact immigration status, can that false advice be considered “ineffective assistance” under the Sixth Amendment?

Arguments

An attorney representing Padilla argued that the Supreme Court should apply the standard in Strickland v. Washington, a 1984 case which created a test for determining when counsel’s advice has been ineffective to the extent of a Sixth Amendment violation. Under that standard, the attorney argued, it was clear that Padilla's counsel had failed to uphold a professional standard when advising him.

An attorney on behalf of Kentucky argued that the Kentucky Supreme Court had accurately labeled immigration effects as a "collateral consequence." Lawyers could not be expected to account for every possible impact a guilty plea might have on their client. Civil effects of a criminal case are beyond the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the attorney argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the 7-2 decision. Justice Stevens declined to recognize the lower court distinction between collateral consequences and direct consequences. Deportation is a “severe penalty,” he wrote, though it is not formally considered a “criminal sanction.” Immigration proceedings and criminal proceedings have had a long and tangled history, Justice Stevens acknowledged. The “close connection” between deportation and criminal conviction makes it difficult to determine whether or not one is a “direct” or “collateral” consequence of the other. As a result, the Kentucky Supreme Court should not have classified deportation as a “collateral consequence” when judging Padilla’s request for relief post-conviction. 

Justice Stevens wrote that the court should have applied a two-prong test from Strickland v. Washington to determine whether the attorney’s advice was “ineffective” for the purposes of the Sixth Amendment. The test asks whether the attorney’s conduct:

  1. Fell below a "standard of reasonableness" shown through expectations of the wider legal community
  2. Resulted in unprofessional errors that altered the proceedings to prejudice the client

The Court reviewed guidelines from several leading defense attorney associations to conclude that the “prevailing legal norm” was to advise clients of immigration consequences. It was clear in Padilla's case that deportation would result from a guilty plea, Justice Stevens wrote. It is not always so clear. The Court did not expect every criminal defense attorney to be well-versed in immigration law. However, counsel could not remain silent in the face of uncertainty. When the consequences of a guilty plea are unclear, the attorney has a duty under the Sixth Amendment to advise the client that the plea might impact their immigration status, Justice Stevens wrote.

The Court remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Kentucky for determination in terms of the second prong of Strickland—whether or not the attorney’s errors changed an outcome for Padilla and whether or not he was entitled to relief.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Scalia argued that the majority had adopted a broad interpretation of the Sixth Amendment. Nowhere in the text of the Sixth Amendment did it require an attorney to advise a client in legal matters beyond those directly related to criminal prosecution, Justice Scalia wrote.

Impact

Padilla v. Kentucky marked an expansion of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Prior to Padilla, attorneys were not required to advise clients of consequences related to guilty pleas that were beyond court-imposed punishment. Padilla altered this rule, finding that clients must be advised of non-criminal consequences from a guilty plea like deportation. Failing to notify a client of possible immigration effects that might come from a guilty plea became a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, under Padilla v. Kentucky.

Sources

  • Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).
  • “Status as Punishment: Padilla v. Kentucky.” American Bar Association, www.americanbar.org/groups/gpsolo/publications/gp_solo/2011/march/status_as_punishment_padilla_kentucky/.