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Massachusetts Supreme Court holds that ineffective assistance of counsel claims based on failure to advise defendant of immigration consequences can be brought for case decided prior to Padilla

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in Commonwealth v. Sylvain that ineffective assistance of counsel claims based on the failure to advise a defendant of the immigration consequences of a criminal conviction can be brought prior to the Padilla decision under Article 12. The SJC declined to follow the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court holding that ineffective assistance of counsel claims could only be made for case decided after Padilla. Since Padilla, it has been the obligation of every Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer to advise any defendant of the immigration consequences of any plea in a criminal case.

  • SJC Rejects the reasoning of Chaidez.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Chaidez v. United States finding that the right to counsel on the deportation consequences of a guilty plea expressed in Padilla was in fact a “new” rule, and so applies only to convictions finalized after the Padilla decision (after 2010). Thus, according to Chaidez, Mr. Sylvain is not eligible for the relief under Padilla since he was convicted and sentenced in 2007.

Background in Sylvain

In 2007, Mr. Kempess Sylvain was arrested and charged in the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court with one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and one count of a drug violation in a school zone. With the advice of legal counsel, Mr. Sylvain sought a plea bargain to avoid facing a minimum sentence of two years imprisonment under these charges. And although he expressed concern that pleading guilty would affect his immigration status, Mr. Sylvain’s attorney reassured him that he was not likely to be deported by pleading to a much less severe charge.

With the advice of his attorney, Sylvain pleaded guilty to simple possession of cocaine, and received an eleven month sentence to the house of corrections – suspended for two years. His conviction became final in 2007. Unfortunately for Sylvain, however, by pleading guilty to this drug offense, he did in fact subjected himself to automatic deportation under federal statute.

In January of 2012, Sylvain asked the court to vacate his guilty plea because he did not receive effective assistance of counsel, as required under the Supreme Court ruling in Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S.Ct. 473 (2010).

The Padilla decision held that a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment protections include a right to accurate advice as to the deportation consequences of a guilty plea. Soon after Padilla in 2011, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Clarke determined that the rule expressed under Padilla was not a “new” rule setting new precedent, but was rather a “definitive application of an established constitutional standard…”

Simply put, the Clarke decision allowed the Padilla rule to effective legal counsel on the immigration consequences of a guilty plea to apply convictions finalized before and after the Padilla decision was published. Therefore, individuals facing deportation because they were not adequately informed of the consequences of their guilty plea by their legal counsel are entitled to a new trial, regardless of the date of their conviction.
The motion judge denied Mr. Sylvain’s motion, however, without releasing any written findings or explanation for the decision. The United States Supreme Court in Chaidez rejected the reasoning of the SJC in Clarke and found that Padilla only applied to prospectively.

Mr. Sylvain appealed to the Massachusetts highest court, seeking the Court to resolve this conflict between the state court’s decision in Clarke and the U.S. Supreme Court in Chaidez. In doing so, Mr. Sylvain asked the state court to uphold his right to effective legal counsel under both the Sixth Amendment and article 12, thereby entitling him to a new trial and terminating deportation.

  • SJC resolves the split between the Clarke and Chaidez decisions

After a thorough review of federal and state court decisions, the Massachusetts court determined that it was not required to follow the Supreme Court’s interpretation of a “new” rule, but could conduct its own independent review to determine whether a rule governing a Sixth Amendment right determined by federal courts to be “new” could still be considered “old” and have retroactive effect in state court.

The Massachusetts court concluded that it could, and chose to continue to apply Padilla retroactively in accordance with its prior decision in Clarke. Thus, Mr. Sylvain’s conviction may be vacated under the Padilla and Clarke interpretation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective legal counsel. The Court also concluded that Mr. Sylvain could seek the same relief under article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

The Court still required Mr. Sylvain to prove, however, that he did in fact receive ineffective legal assistance, and that the ineffective assistance deprived him of a defense or relief he was otherwise eligible for. Mr. Sylvain needed to demonstrate that had his attorney adequately advised him of the deportation consequences of his guilty plea, he would not have made the plea but would have gone to trial. Because the judge presiding over the motion did not make any formal findings as to whether Mr. Sylvain was actually prejudiced by ineffective assistance, the case was remanded.

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