Plea accepted without understanding immigration consequences may be vacated

People v. Espinoza (2023) 14 Cal.5th 311 [303 Cal.Rptr.3d 670, 522 P.3d 1074]

Summary: After serving sentence, noncitizen filed statutory motion to vacate conviction pursuant to negotiated no-contest plea, because he had not understood immigration consequences of plea. The Superior Court denied the motion. Noncitizen appealed. The Court of Appeal, 2021 WL 2177264, affirmed. Review was granted by the California Supreme Court.

Holding: The Supreme Court held that noncitizen corroborated his claim that immigration consequences were a paramount concern when he entered negotiated no-contest plea.

Immigration Consequences and vacating a conviction

Penal Code section 1473.7 allows noncitizens who have served their sentences to vacate a conviction if they can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that their conviction is “legally invalid due to prejudicial error damaging [their] ability to meaningfully understand, defend against, or knowingly accept the actual or potential adverse immigration consequences of a conviction or sentence.” (Pen. Code, § 1473.7, subd. (a)(1).

To establish prejudicial error, a defendant must demonstrate a “reasonable probability that the defendant would have rejected the plea if the defendant had correctly understood its actual or potential immigration consequences” (People v. Vivar (2021) 11 Cal.5th 510, 529 (Vivar)) and must corroborate any assertions with ‘objective evidence.’ A motion to vacate a conviction, in contrast to a direct appellate challenge to the plea itself, is generally filed after “the individual filing the motion is no longer in criminal custody.” (§ 1473.7, subd. (b)(1).)

Espinoza accepted a plea bargain in 2004 and served one year in jail. He claimed that he first learned that the plea put him at risk of losing his permanent resident status and being deported in 2015, when he was detained by federal immigration authorities at the airport after a return flight to the United States. He then sought to vacate his conviction three separate times. He asserts counsel never informed him of the immigration consequences of his plea and that he would not have accepted the terms of the plea bargain if he had been properly informed. In support of his third motion, Espinoza attached a declaration describing his biographical history, which includes more than 20 years living in the United States prior to conviction; a declaration from an immigration attorney explaining that Espinoza’s convictions place him in danger of losing his permanent residence, being deported, and being barred from reentering the United States, and that there were immigration-safe alternatives his counsel could have pursued; and 30 support letters from family, friends, community members, clients, and employers documenting his family ties, community connections, and work history. The trial court denied his motion, as it had his previous two. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that Espinoza had not adequately corroborated his claim that immigration consequences were a paramount concern at the time of his plea.

Issue before the Supreme Court: “Did the Court of Appeal err in ruling that defendant failed to adequately corroborate his claim that immigration consequences were a paramount concern and thus that he could not demonstrate prejudice within the meaning of Penal Code section 1473.7?” The Supreme Court held that Espinoza has made the requisite showing and reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

No meaningful understanding of immigration consequences

The record establishes that Espinoza did not meaningfully understand the immigration consequences of his plea. Espinoza’s attorney never advised him that pleading no contest to the charges at issue would result in his deportation. After his conviction, Espinoza started his own business, joined community organizations, and became well-known in his local community. He  took an international commercial flight to the United States, which required subjecting himself to the scrutiny of United States immigration officials, which is not consistent with the behavior of a person who understood that his convictions effectively ended his lawful resident status. (See People v. Alatorre (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 747, 770.

Espinoza showed a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea and either gone to trial or sought a different, immigration-safe bargain if he had understood the consequences of the plea. Espinoza’s deep and longstanding ties to the United States, along with those to his family and community, support the conclusion that immigration concerns would have been paramount to him at the time of his plea. Espinoza’s lack of criminal history at the time of his plea and the immigration attorney’s declaration identifying alternative immigration-safe dispositions suggest that he had reason to expect or hope for a different plea agreement without immigration consequences.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remand the case to the Court of Appeal with directions to remand the case to the trial court for entry of an order granting Espinoza’s section 1473.7 motion to vacate his conviction.

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