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Fourth Circuit Reverses Lower Court for Giving Dispositive Weight to Plea Agreement Language Rather Than Fact-Based Evaluation of Weight of Evidence in IAC Claim

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that an attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by advising the defendant that the crime to which he was pleading guilty carried a “mere possibility” of deportation when, in fact, it carried mandatory deportation.

Sergio Carrillo Murillo and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 when he was age 7. He is a lawful permanent resident and no longer has family in Mexico. He became entangled with the law and immigration officials after he traveled from New Mexico to Virginia on February 10, 2016, to sell a kilogram of cocaine for $40,000. The buyer was a confidential informant, and after the exchange, Murillo was arrested.

A grand jury indicted him on two cocaine-related offenses: (1) conspiracy to distribute and (2) possession with intent to distribute. As “[s]taying in the United States with [his] family has always been [his] number one priority,” Murillo retained attorney Katherine Martell, who touted her expertise in immigration law on Spanish radio. She successfully negotiated to remove six clauses of the plea agreement that related to immigration consequences. Martell also negotiated a plea to drop the possession with intent to distribute charge if he would plead guilty to the conspiracy charge, which occurred on June 21, 2016. At the plea hearing, both Martell and the plea court stated that deportation was a “possibility.” He was sentenced to 24 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

Murillo learned after talking to an immigration officer in prison that rather than having a chance to fight his deportation, his charge at conviction was an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(B) that made deportation mandatory. On September 7, 2017, Murillo filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate, alleging Martell rendered ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied the petition, and Murillo appealed.

The Fourth Circuit noted that the district court highlighted that Murillo “could not avoid the mandatory immigration consequences were he convicted of any of the charges brought against him” and that the plea agreement indicted he “want[ed] to plead guilty regardless of any immigration consequences.” It was error, the Fourth Circuit ruled, for the district court to give “dispositive weight to limited language” from the plea agreement. In such cases, a “fact-based evaluation of the weight of the evidence” is required to determine prejudice. Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. 362 (2000).

“[P]lea agreement language and sworn statements must be considered in their context: When a defendant has been told—multiple times—that immigration consequences are not mandated but merely a ‘possibility,’ a willingness ‘to plead guilty regardless of any immigration consequences’ does not mean that the defendant was willing to plead guilty if doing so meant mandatory deportation,” the Fourth Circuit wrote. To establish prejudice, a defendant “need only demonstrate that, from the perspective of a reasonable person in his position, rejecting the plea agreement would have been “rational.”

The record left “little doubt that avoiding deportation was [Murillo’s] main priority.” As such, he met his burden. While the district court gave a “general warning” about the immigration consequences of the plea, that warning was “insufficient to correct counsel’s affirmative misadvise” that Murillo’s crime “was not categorically a deportable offense.” To cure such misadvise, a district court can accurately inform a defendant of the immigration consequences of the plea.

Since the qualified statements from Murillo’s “plea agreement and equivocal affirmations at his plea hearing” did not outweigh the evidence that his “main priority was remaining in this country with his family,” the district court erred in denying his motion to vacate.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Carrillo Murillo, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 18725 (4th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Carrillo Murillo



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