After the United States Supreme Court's decision in Padilla v. United States, attorneys and courts are now well-versed about the necessity of informing defendants about the possible effects a guilty plea may have on their immigration status. A recent published decision by the Court in United States v. Ataya, discusses a related issue that many of us may have not considered and is worth a brief discussion.
In this case, Mr. Ataya entered into a guilty plea to conspiring to commit health care fraud and wire fraud. Although his plea agreement waived his right to appeal his conviction and sentence, Mr. Ataya filed a notice of appeal from the judgment. The United States subsequently moved to the dismiss the appeal based on the waiver language.
In a published decision, the Court noted several issues with the district court's plea colloquy. In particular, it found that the district court did not inform Mr. Ataya that the plea agreement required him to pay restitution and a special assessment. Most importantly, however, the Court noted that the neither the plea agreement nor the district court told Mr. Ataya -- a foreign national who subsequently became a naturalized U.S. citizen -- that he could face "denaturalization" due to his conviction. Although the Court held Mr. Ataya knowingly and voluntarily waived his appellate rights, the Court hinted that the failure to explain the denaturalization risk might invalidate the plea agreement as a whole and referred the motion to its Merits Panel to examine the issue.
While the Court may ultimately dismiss Mr. Ataya's appeal, this case serves as a reminder that counsel should take care in advising immigrant clients who enter into plea agreements -- even where such clients have become naturalized United States citizens. While attorneys might overlook this issue where their client has taken the steps to become a naturalized citizen, this case emphasizes that one cannot be too careful in such cases.