Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Better (Plea) Deal: Court holds Defendant can Show Strickland Prejudice by Losing the Right to Negotiate a Better Plea Deal

Although the Court has been light on published opinions this week (so far), it has managed to issue one habeas win.  In Rodriguez-Penton v. United States, the Court reversed the District Court's denial of Mr. Rodriquez-Penton's 2255 motion and remanded it for additional proceedings, holding that Mr. Rodriquez-Penton, who was told pleading guilty would not adversely impact his immigration status, could meet the Strickland prejudice prong by showing that, had he known about the risk to his immigration status, "he would have bargained for a more favorable plea."

Mr. Rodriquez-Penton moved from Cuba to the United States when he was only fifteen years old.  At the time of his indictment in 2011, he was living in Louisville, Kentucky as a permanent resident with a green card.  The Government subsequently made two separate plea offers to him in the year after his arrest.  Ultimately, Mr. Rodriquez-Penton entered an open guilty plea in October 2012.  In March 2013, the district court sentenced him to 121 months imprisonment.  According to Mr. Rodriquez-Penton, he did not learn his guilty plea would possibly lead to his deportation until he spoke with his prison counselor.

After the Sixth Circuit rejected his argument that his plea was not knowing and voluntary, Mr. Rodriquez-Penton filed a 2255 motion arguing his trial counsel was ineffective for not explaining the adverse immigration impacts of his guilty plea.   A magistrate judge, and subsequently the district court, concluded Mr. Rodriquez-Penton met the first Strickland prong, finding his counsel's performance deficient because, by his own admission, he could not recall informing Mr. Rodriquez-Penton that deportation was a possibility.  However, both the magistrate judge and district court found that Mr. Rodriquez-Penton could not satisfy the second Strickland prong because he could not show prejudice.  Crucial to this decision was Mr. Rodriquez-Penton's testimony that he would have gone to trial, even if he could have negotiated a better plea agreement.  Thus, the district court dismissed his 2255 motion and Mr. Rodriquez-Penton appealed.

On appeal, the Court quickly agreed that Mr. Rodriquez-Penton demonstrated deficient performance.  The critical issue, however, was whether he could show actual prejudice.  Noting a question raised, but not answered by the Supreme Court in United States v. Lee, and smartly raised by Mr. Rodriquez-Penton, the Court held that he could demonstrate Strickland prejudice by demonstrating that, absent his attorney's deficient performance, he would have bargained for a more favorable plea.

Judge Thapar began his lengthy dissent by stating the obvious: "[b]eing a criminal defense attorney is not easy."  Noting that criminal defense attorneys often have the odds and resources stacked against them, Judge Thapar criticized the majority for creating a new "right" that made their jobs only harder.  Noting that defendants do not have a constitutional right to a plea offer, Judge Thapar said the majority's opinion would open the flood gates for numerous 2255 motions claiming that defendants would have negotiated a better plea deal had their counsel not been ineffective.

Time will only tell whether Judge Thapar's fears hold true.  In the meantime, look for future habeas appeals to cite this case in an effort to undue plea agreements.

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