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Lee v. United States

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 2017

JAE LEE, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES

          Argued March 28, 2017

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

         Petitioner Jae Lee moved to the United States from South Korea with his parents when he was 13. In the 35 years he has spent in this country, he has never returned to South Korea, nor has he become a U.S. citizen, living instead as a lawful permanent resident. In 2008, federal officials received a tip from a confidential informant that Lee had sold the informant ecstasy and marijuana. After obtaining a warrant, the officials searched Lee's house, where they found drugs, cash, and a loaded rifle. Lee admitted that the drugs were his, and a grand jury indicted him on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. Lee retained counsel and entered into plea discussions with the Government. During the plea process, Lee repeatedly asked his attorney whether he would face deportation; his attorney assured him that he would not be deported as a result of pleading guilty. Based on that assurance, Lee accepted a plea and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Lee had in fact pleaded guilty to an "aggravated felony" under the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(B), so he was, contrary to his attorney's advice, subject to mandatory deportation as a result of that plea. See §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). When Lee learned of this consequence, he filed a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence, arguing that his attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance. At an evidentiary hearing, both Lee and his plea-stage counsel testified that "deportation was the determinative issue" to Lee in deciding whether to accept a plea, and Lee's counsel acknowledged that although Lee's defense to the charge was weak, if he had known Lee would be deported upon pleading guilty, he would have advised him to go to trial. A Magistrate Judge recommended that Lee's plea be set aside and his conviction vacated. The District Court, however, denied relief, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Applying the two-part test for ineffective assistance claims from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, the Sixth Circuit concluded that, while the Government conceded that Lee's counsel had performed deficiently, Lee could not show that he was prejudiced by his attorney's erroneous advice.

         Held: Lee has demonstrated that he was prejudiced by his counsel's erroneous advice. Pp. 5-13.

(a) When a defendant claims that his counsel's deficient performance deprived him of a trial by causing him to accept a plea, the defendant can show prejudice by demonstrating a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59.
Lee contends that he can make this showing because he never would have accepted a guilty plea had he known the result would be deportation. The Government contends that Lee cannot show prejudice from accepting a plea where his only hope at trial was that something unexpected and unpredictable might occur that would lead to acquittal. Pp. 5-8.
(b) The Government makes two errors in urging the adoption of a per se rule that a defendant with no viable defense cannot show prejudice from the denial of his right to trial. First, it forgets that categorical rules are ill suited to an inquiry that demands a "case-by-case examination" of the "totality of the evidence." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 391 (internal quotation marks omitted); Strickland, 466 U.S., at 695. More fundamentally, it overlooks that the Hill v. Lockhart inquiry focuses on a defendant's decisionmaking, which may not turn solely on the likelihood of conviction after trial.
The decision whether to plead guilty also involves assessing the respective consequences of a conviction after trial and by plea. See INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 322-323. When those consequences are, from the defendant's perspective, similarly dire, even the smallest chance of success at trial may look attractive. For Lee, deportation after some time in prison was not meaningfully different from deportation after somewhat less time; he says he accordingly would have rejected any plea leading to deportation in favor of throwing a "Hail Mary" at trial. Pointing to Strickland, the Government urges that "[a] defendant has no entitlement to the luck of a lawless decisionmaker." 466 U.S., at 695. That statement, however, was made in the context of discussing the presumption of reliability applied to judicial proceedings, which has no place where, as here, a defendant was deprived of a proceeding altogether. When the inquiry is focused on what an individual defendant would have done, the possibility of even a highly improbable result may be pertinent to the extent it would have affected the defendant's decisionmaking. Pp. 8-10.
(c) Courts should not upset a plea solely because of post hoc assertions from a defendant about how he would have pleaded but for his attorney's deficiencies. Rather, they should look to contemporaneous evidence to substantiate a defendant's expressed preferences. In the unusual circumstances of this case, Lee has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation: Both Lee and his attorney testified that "deportation was the determinative issue" to Lee; his responses during his plea colloquy confirmed the importance he placed on deportation; and he had strong connections to the United States, while he had no ties to South Korea.
The Government argues that Lee cannot "convince the court that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances, " Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 372, since deportation would almost certainly result from a trial. Unlike the Government, this Court cannot say that it would be irrational for someone in Lee's position to risk additional prison time in exchange for holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation. Pp. 10-13.

825 F.3d 311, reversed and remanded.

          ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined except as to Part I. GORSUCH, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

          OPINION

          Roberts Chief Justice

         Petitioner Jae Lee was indicted on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. Although he has lived in this country for most of his life, Lee is not a United States citizen, and he feared that a criminal conviction might affect his status as a lawful permanent resident. His attorney assured him there was nothing to worry about-the Government would not deport him if he pleaded guilty. So Lee, who had no real defense to the charge, opted to accept a plea that carried a lesser prison sentence than he would have faced at trial.

         Lee's attorney was wrong: The conviction meant that Lee was subject to mandatory deportation from this country. Lee seeks to vacate his conviction on the ground that, in accepting the plea, he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. Everyone agrees that Lee received objectively unreasonable representation. The question presented is whether he can show he was prejudiced as a result.

         I

         Jae Lee moved to the United States from South Korea in 1982. He was 13 at the time. His parents settled the family in New York City, where they opened a small coffee shop. After graduating from a business high school in Manhattan, Lee set out on his own to Memphis, Tennessee, where he started working at a restaurant. After three years, Lee decided to try his hand at running a business. With some assistance from his family, Lee opened the Mandarin Palace Chinese Restaurant in a Memphis suburb. The Mandarin was a success, and Lee eventually opened a second restaurant nearby. In the 35 years he has spent in the country, Lee has never returned to South Korea. He did not become a United States citizen, living instead as a lawful permanent resident.

         At the same time he was running his lawful businesses, Lee also engaged in some illegitimate activity. In 2008, a confidential informant told federal officials that Lee had sold the informant approximately 200 ecstasy pills and two ounces of hydroponic marijuana over the course of eight years. The officials obtained a search warrant for Lee's house, where they found 88 ecstasy pills, three Valium tablets, $32, 432 in cash, and a loaded rifle. Lee admitted that the drugs were his and that he had given ecstasy to his friends.

         A grand jury indicted Lee on one count of possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. §841(a)(1). Lee retained an attorney and entered into plea discussions with the Government. The attorney advised Lee that going to trial was "very risky" and that, if he pleaded guilty, he would receive a lighter sentence than he would if convicted at trial. App. 167. Lee informed his attorney of his noncitizen status and repeatedly asked him whether he would face deportation as a result of the criminal proceedings. The attorney told Lee that he would not be deported as a result of pleading guilty. Lee v. United States, 825 F.3d 311, 313 (CA6 2016). Based on that assurance, Lee accepted the plea and the District Court sentenced him to a year and a day in prison, though it deferred commencement of Lee's sentence for two months so that Lee could manage his restaurants over the holiday season.

         Lee quickly learned, however, that a prison term was not the only consequence of his plea. Lee had pleaded guilty to what qualifies as an "aggravated felony" under the Immigration and Nationality Act, and a noncitizen convicted of such an offense is subject to mandatory deportation. See 8 U.S.C. §§1101(a)(43)(B), 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii); Calcano-Martinez v. INS, 533 U.S. 348, 350, n. 1 (2001). Upon learning that he would be deported after serving his sentence, Lee filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. §2255 to vacate his conviction and sentence, arguing that his attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance.

         At an evidentiary hearing on Lee's motion, both Lee and his plea-stage counsel testified that "deportation was the determinative issue in Lee's decision whether to accept the plea." Report and Recommendation in No. 2:10-cv-02698 (WD Tenn.), pp. 6-7 (Report and Recommendation). In fact, Lee explained, his attorney became "pretty upset because every time something comes up I always ask about immigration status, " and the lawyer "always said why [are you] worrying about something that you don't need to worry about." App. 170. According to Lee, the lawyer assured him that if deportation was not in the plea agreement, "the government cannot deport you." Ibid. Lee's attorney testified that he thought Lee's case was a "bad case to try" because Lee's defense to the charge was weak. Id., at 218-219. The attorney nonetheless acknowledged that if he had known Lee would be deported upon pleading guilty, he would have advised him to go to trial. Id., at 236, 244. Based on the hearing testimony, a Magistrate Judge recommended that Lee's plea be set aside and his conviction vacated because he had received ineffective assistance of counsel.

         The District Court, however, denied relief. Applying our two-part test for ineffective assistance claims from Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the District Court concluded that Lee's counsel had performed deficiently by giving improper advice about the deportation consequences of the plea. But, "[i]n light of the overwhelming evidence of Lee's guilt, " Lee "would have almost certainly" been found guilty and received "a significantly longer prison sentence, and subsequent deportation, " had he gone to trial. Order in No. 2:10-v-02698 (WD Tenn.), p. 24 (Order). Lee therefore could not show he was prejudiced by his attorney's erroneous advice. Viewing its resolution of the issue as debatable among jurists of reason, the District Court granted a certificate of appealability.

         The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. On appeal, the Government conceded that the performance of Lee's attorney had been deficient. To establish that he was prejudiced by that deficient performance, the court explained, Lee was required to show "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial." 825 F.3d, at 313 (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985); internal quotation marks omitted). Lee had "no bona fide defense, not even a weak one, " so he "stood to gain nothing from going to trial but more prison time." 825 F.3d, at 313, 316. Relying on Circuit precedent holding that "no rational defendant charged with a deportable offense and facing overwhelming evidence of guilt would proceed to trial rather than take a plea deal with a shorter prison sentence, " the Court of Appeals concluded that Lee could not show prejudice. Id., at 314 (internal quotation marks omitted). We granted certiorari. 580 U.S.__(2016).

         II

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the effective assistance of counsel at "critical stages of a criminal proceeding, " including when he enters a guilty plea. Lafler v. Cooper,566 U.S. 156, 165 (2012); Hill, 474 U.S., at 58. To demonstrate that counsel was constitutionally ineffective, a defendant must show that counsel's representation "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" and that he was prejudiced as a result. Strickland, 466 U.S., at 688, 692. The first requirement is not at issue in today's case: The Government concedes that Lee's plea-stage counsel provided inadequate representation when he assured Lee that ...


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