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Justices decline appeal of Marylander facing deportation

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear the request of a Mexican national living in Maryland to withdraw his no-contest plea to a sex offense that resulted in federal deportation proceedings against him.

The justices let stand without comment lower court decisions that rejected Hugo Reyes-Morales’ claim that his plea was invalid because his attorneys told him that – though he could be deported for the serious crime conviction – the chances of deportation were “very low” because the plea deal of less than a year in prison was “immigration friendly.”

That advice was proven wrong when the federal government initiated deportation proceedings because the third-degree sex offense was a deportable crime of “moral turpitude” punishable by more than one year in prison, Reyes-Morales’ appellate attorneys Robert C. Bonsib and Megan E. Coleman wrote in their client’s unsuccessful request for Supreme Court review.

The attorneys had asked the justice to revisit their 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky that requires attorneys to “do no more than advise a non-citizen client that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences,” such as deportation.

Reyes-Morales’ trial attorneys essentially did less by saying more when they told him of the risk but erroneously added that the chance of deportation was low based on the plea, wrote Bonsib and Coleman, of MarcusBonsib LLC in Greenbelt.

Reyes-Morales sought Supreme Court review of what his appellate counsel called the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ incorrect decision that his guilty plea was valid because the warning that he could be deported  had “by itself” satisfied the advice required under Padilla regardless of what else he might have been told.

“The Padilla court cautioned defense counsel to ‘do no more’ than advise about the risk of immigration consequences when those consequences are unclear,” Bonsib and Coleman wrote.

“But where an attorney does do more, he does so at his own peril,” they added. “The Padilla court could not have intended that a general advisement about the risk of immigration consequences would ‘by itself’ be sufficient to satisfy constitutional guarantees, regardless of the contemporaneous misadvice given by defense counsel, as was upheld by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in (this) case.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office had waived the state’s right to respond to the petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices requested a response.

The high court’s denial of Reyes-Morales’ request for its review is just that and not a ruling on the merits of his argument. The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Hugo Reyes-Morales v. State of Maryland, No. 21-619.

Reyes-Morales, a legal U.S. resident, was facing four counts of third-degree sex offense and one count of sexual solicitation of a minor when he chose to forgo a trial and enter an Alford plea in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on July 10, 2013, to one count of third-degree sex offense. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail, with all but the two days he had served in jail suspended, and 364 days of supervised probation.

The federal government sought Reyes-Morales’ deportation six months later, prompting him to seek withdrawal of his plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel and proceed to trial in hope of being found not guilty and staving off deportation.

Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Beverly J. Woodard granted his withdrawal request on Oct.19, 2015, concluding that the assurances that his plea was “immigration friendly” weakened his attorneys’ prior warning that he could be deported.

But the intermediate Court of Special Appeals reinstated the plea on Feb. 5, 2021, agreeing with the state that the attorneys’ warning that he could be deported satisfied the advice requirement set by the Supreme Court in Padilla. The Court of Appeals declined to hear Reyes-Morales’ appeal on May 28, 2021, prompting his unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court.