Last week, the California Supreme Court issued an important decision expanding the ability of migrants given poor advice about the immigration consequences of a conviction to obtain relief. In People v. Patterson, No. S225193, slip op. (Cal. March 27, 2017), the court unanimously held that a migrant isn’t barred from withdrawing a guilty plea that results in mandatory immigration detention and deportability simply because the plea form stated that conviction “may” result in adverse immigration consequences. Pursuant to Cal. Penal Code § 1016.5, all defendants are provided this generic advisement.
The court concluded that a standard advisement does not put a defendant who is not a United States citizen on actual notice that immigration consequences will arise upon conviction. Instead, all it does is inform defendants that convictions for some crimes may result in adverse immigration consequences. To the court, the difference between knowing that removal is possible rather than presumptively mandatory proved significant. Quoting Judge Robert Hinkle, the court added, “Well, I know every time that I get on an airplane that it could crash, but if you tell me it’s going to crash, I’m not getting on.”
Patterson represents a valuable path for migrants seeking to avoid removal based on faulty advice about the consequences of conviction. Nonetheless, it is a legally narrow decision. It does not guarantee migrants who now face detention and removal that their convictions will be withdrawn. Rather, it simply gives the trial court the discretion to grant withdrawal. Migrants will still be tasked with showing that they merit a favorable exercise of the trial court’s discretion.
Interestingly, Patterson also sheds light on the uncanny power that legal proceedings have to flip standard political positions on their head. While Patterson was being litigated, the California Attorney General’s Office, led by Democrat Kamala Harris, resisted advocates’ efforts to adopt the pro-migrant reading of the state’s withdrawal procedure that the California Supreme Court ultimately embraced. These days, Harris is a United States Senator who has forcefully opposed the Trump Administration’s immigration policing plans and policies.
Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court is headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a Republican appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye did not write the court’s opinion, she did join it. That she joined the opinion shouldn’t be surprising. It suggests nothing more than her willingness to seriously consider reasoned arguments. If anything, her vote highlights the valuable role that courts occupy in our democracy as a site in which participants can’t simply ignore or shout over their opponents as so often happens in legislatures.