Now a decision that could affect tens of thousands of people. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that legal immigrants must be told by their lawyers that pleading guilty to a crime could lead to their deportation.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Jose Padilla, a native of Honduras and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has lived in the United States legally for 40 years. A truck driver, he was stopped at a weigh station in Kentucky, and gave a law enforcement officers permission to search his truck. Stowed among his registered cargo were 23 Styrofoam boxes containing a half-ton of marijuana. He refused to plead guilty until the eve of trial, when his lawyer assured him that his guilty plea and a five-year prison sentence would not affect his immigration status. The lawyer was wrong.

The guilty plea triggered a mandatory deportation, and Padilla, upon learning that, tried to withdraw the plea, contending he'd been denied effective assistance of counsel. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled against him, concluding that the constitutional right to counsel does not extend to matters that fall outside the criminal case at hand. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, by a 7-2 vote.

Writing for the court majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that because Congress over the last two decades has made deportation mandatory for a wide variety of crimes, the stakes have been dramatically raised for noncitizens pleading guilty. Although staying in the United States may be more important than any potential jail sentence, he said, defendants are often not advised that a guilty plea may result in their deportation. In a case like this, said Stevens, where a simple reading of the statute would've told the lawyer her client would face near certain deportation, failing to provide that information denies the defendant the effective assistance of counsel. It is our responsibility, said the court, to ensure that no criminal defendant is left to the mercies of incompetent counsel, and we now hold that counsel must inform her client whether a plea carries the risk of deportation.

Immigrant-rights advocates say today's ruling could potentially affect tens of thousands. Benita Jain is co-director of the Immigrant Rights Project based in New York.

Ms. BENITA JAIN (Co-Director, Immigrant Rights Project): I think historic is not an understatement.

Mr. STEPHEN KINNAIRD (Attorney): This is really a watershed decision in the immigration rights area.

TOTENBERG: Stephen Kinnaird represented Padilla in the Supreme Court. He notes that with nearly 13 million immigrants living legally in the United States, some of whom came here as toddlers, it's axiomatic that tens of thousands of them will have some sort of run-in with the law each year. And just like citizens who face similar charges, most agree to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence, even no jail time.

Mr. KINNAIRD: And then it would turn out that crime, you know, it might be theft or something like that, would result in their automatic deportation, and they're shocked by it because they had no idea.

TOTENBERG: The examples of such cases are legion, from the woman who stole a bottle of medicine for her sick child, to the Georgia business owner with no criminal record, pulled over by police one night and charged with a drug violation after a dollar bill found in his pocket was found to have trace amounts of cocaine. His guilty plea in exchange for no jail time and a promise to expunge his record didn't protect him from deportation proceedings. Immigrant-rights advocates say that the more minor the crime and the lighter the sentence, the greater the shock at the near-certain deportation that may follow.

Now the Supreme Court has declared that lawyers have a duty to advise their clients that a guilty plea, even with no jail time, can result in deportation.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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