By Lawrence Hurley
June 23, 2017
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday threw out a legal immigrant’s drug conviction on the grounds that his lawyer had failed to advise him that he could be deported to his native South Korea if found guilty.
The court ruled 6-2 in favor of Jae Lee, who ran two restaurants in Memphis, Tennessee and has lived in the United States since 1982 when he was 12. Despite the ruling, Lee could still be deported if he is tried and convicted again for the drug offense.
Lee was arrested in 2009 when police found 88 ecstasy tablets in his home, and he was charged with possessing the drug with the intent to distribute, a felony crime that triggers deportation if convicted.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing on behalf of the court, said there was “substantial and uncontroverted evidence” that Lee would not have entered a guilty plea if he had known he would be deported.
“But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would certainly have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation,” Roberts said.
Roberts noted that Lee’s chance of avoiding being convicted were slim if he did go on trial.
Lee’s lawyer at the time, Larry Fitzgerald, was not aware that deportation was mandatory and advised his client to plead guilty so he could avoid a likely prison sentence of three to five years. Lee pleaded guilty in June 2009 and was sentenced to one year in prison.
In September 2009, Lee realized he was facing deportation proceedings, prompting him to file a claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
Lee sought Supreme Court review after the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his claim in June 2016. A lower court had earlier ruled against Lee in 2014.
The ruling comes at a time when the administration of President Donald Trump has taken action to ramp up immigration enforcement, and the case is one of several on immigration-related themes before the justices. The most significant is Trump’s bid to revive his travel ban on people entering the United States from six predominantly Muslim countries.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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