Supreme Court Clarifies Obligations Criminal Defense Attorneys, Trial Courts Have to Advise About Immigration Consequences of Guilty Pleas

December 23, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the conviction of a man who said he wasn’t aware that his guilty plea would result in his deportation or adversely affect his future eligibility to return legally to the United States.

In 2011, Juan Alberto Blanco Garcia, an alien illegally residing in the United States, pled guilty to the felony of neglect of a child under six years of age. With the aid of an interpreter in court, Blanco Garcia said he understood the charges, the sentence possibilities and that his guilty plea was made freely and voluntarily.  The trial court did not advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of the plea or inquire whether his attorney had done so. 

Before he entered the plea, however, Mr. Blanco Garcia’s attorney told him that he would be deported based on his status as an illegal alien and the guilty plea. The attorney also told Mr. Blanco Garcia that the guilty plea could adversely affect his future eligibility to return legally to the United States, but she advised him to consult an immigration lawyer for more specific information about the issue.

After his conviction, Mr. Blanco Garcia filed a petition alleging that his attorney was ineffective and his plea involuntary because he was not informed of the future immigration consequences of the guilty plea.

The Supreme Court determined that the attorney fulfilled her obligation of effectively representing Mr. Blanco Garcia by advising him that he would be deported upon pleading guilty and that the guilty plea could have future adverse immigration consequences.  The Court explained that this general warning was sufficient because federal law did not clearly and succinctly describe the effect Mr. Blanco Garcia’s guilty plea would have on his future eligibility to return legally to this country. 

As to Mr. Blanco Garcia’s claim that his plea was unknowing and involuntary, the Court declined to decide whether the federal or state constitution requires courts to advise a person pleading guilty of the immigration consequences of the guilty plea.  The Court explained that, even assuming the trial court’s failure to advise Mr. Blanco Garcia of the immigration consequences of his plea amounted to constitutional error, the error was harmless because Mr. Blanco Garcia’s attorney had already informed him of the immigration consequences of his plea.

Read the Opinion in Juan Alberto Blanco Garcia v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Cornelia Clark.