A local attorney specializing in immigration law has won a state Supreme Court case — People v. Rodrigo Martinez Martinez — that clarifies immigrant defendants’ rights in cases that involve negotiated pleas.
Martinez, who was arrested at 18 for selling $8 worth of marijuana, sought to have his conviction vacated because he was never advised that his plea could result in his deportation; the case was argued by Sara Coppin, a Nevada County native.
Coppin, who had been working in the Bay Area, recently returned to the area to open her own practice in Grass Valley that focused exclusively on immigration issues. Coppin also tries appellate cases, serving on the panel for the Sixth District Court of Appeals that covers cases from Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
“I represent indigent clients who are appealing conviction,” she said, adding that she was appointed to represent Martinez in 2010.
In California, there is a statutory requirement that courts must warn defendants who are about to plead guilty that their plea might have negative immigration consequences, Coppin explained.
If they fail to do that, defendants can file to vacate the conviction but only if they can demonstrate prejudice — that the action impacted the outcome in a negative way, Coppin said.
And that’s where Martinez’s case became ground-breaking.
Martinez had been arrested in 1992 for selling a bindle of marijuana for $8; he was 18 at the time.
Pursuant to the terms of a plea bargain, Martinez pleaded guilty to the sale or transportation of marijuana. He was sentenced to three years probation; 111 days in jail with credit for time served; and was ordered to pay a fine, register as a narcotics offender and undergo counseling.
But on the written minute order for the plea, a box that explained that the conviction might lead to immigration consequences was not checked.
In 2008, Martinez successfully petitioned to withdraw his plea and his conviction was expunged from his record. But that had no effect on the federal immigration consequences, and he was subsequently denied legal residency and deportation proceedings were begun.
He then filed to vacate the conviction based on the statute requiring advisement of immigration consequences, on the grounds that he would have rejected the plea offer and insisted on negotiating a plea without immigration consequences or, failing that, would have exercised his right to a jury trial.
The court denied his motion, finding it “highly improbable” that Martinez would have been offered a more favorable plea agreement or that he would have been acquitted.
Coppin was appointed to represent Martinez in his appeal in the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which was denied. She then filed a petition for review by the state Supreme Court.
“You have the duty to do everything you can for your client,” she said. “A petition for review is pretty common, asking the Supreme Court to take the case — it’s the last option for your client. But it’s not common for the Supreme Court to accept a case — that’s a really big deal.”
According to Coppin, the question of what constituted prejudice was a major issue in Martinez’s case. In past cases, defense counsel could not show evidence of prejudice if they could not prove the defendant might have won at trial.
“But that’s not really the right question,” she said. “You have to take into account all the other reasons a defendant might want to fight a case. There are a lot of reasons why someone would reject a plea offer.”
The State Supreme Court ruling noted that prejudice is shown if the defendant establishes it was reasonably probable he would not have pleaded guilty if properly advised.
“Because the question is what the defendant would have done, relief should be granted if the court determines (he) would have chosen not to plead … even if the court finds it not reasonably probable the defendant would have obtained a more favorable outcome,” wrote Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar in the opinion issued Aug. 8.
“The critical question is whether the defendant would have rejected the plea bargain, not what the outcome of that decision would have been,” she wrote.
While the state supreme court’s decision only affects a “narrow” pool of defendants, Coppin said, it will make a huge difference in their cases.
Coppin said the court’s ruling for Martinez also acknowledged what she called the “reality on the ground” — that immigration attorneys would look for alternative pleas that would not trigger deportation.
Martinez — the sole support of four children and his wife, a legal resident who is blind — now is eligible to apply for his green card, Coppin noted, adding, “He should have no problem getting that.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.