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Lee v. United States

Justia Summary

Lee moved to the U.S. from South Korea with his parents when he was 13. For 35 years he never returned to South Korea, nor did he become a U.S. citizen. He is a lawful permanent resident. In 2008, Lee admitted possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. His attorney repeatedly assured him that he would not be deported as a result of pleading guilty. Lee accepted a plea and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. His conviction was an “aggravated felony,” 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(B), so he was subject to mandatory deportation. When Lee learned of this consequence, he moved to vacate his conviction, arguing that his attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance. Lee and his plea-stage counsel testified that “deportation was the determinative issue” in Lee's decision to accept a plea. Lee’s counsel acknowledged that although Lee’s defense was weak, if he had known Lee would be deported upon pleading guilty, he would have advised him to go to trial. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of relief. The Supreme Court reversed. Lee established that he was prejudiced by erroneous advice, demonstrating a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” The Court stated that the inquiry demands a “case-by-case examination.” A defendant’s decisionmaking may not turn solely on the likelihood of conviction after trial. When the inquiry is focused on what an individual defendant would have done, the possibility of even a highly improbable result may be pertinent to the extent it would have affected the defendant’s decisionmaking. The Court reasoned that it could not say that it would be irrational for someone in Lee’s position to risk additional prison time in exchange for holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation.

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