Warning proposed for aliens in court State panel says guilty plea may hurt immigrant status

May 25, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Every day, defendants pleading guilty to crimes in Maryland courts are advised that they are giving up a variety of rights,

including trial by a jury. That standard warning might soon include something new: notice that the guilty plea could affect immigration status.

The proposal by the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of Maryland's highest court is a sign of the state's growing foreign-born population, up 30 percent since 1990 to 406,000 last year, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

"If our society is changing, we need to look at our institutions and see if they are [changing]," said Linda Estrada, president of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association, which pushed for the new wording.

The proposal is also a sign of changing immigration laws. A 1996 statute decreased the sentence -- suspended or served -- that means automatic deportation to one year and made minor crimes grounds for denial of citizenship.

That law also was retroactive, so people who pleaded guilty to offenses before it went into effect are endangered by its provisions.

RTC Richard J. Douglas, an immigration attorney and board member of the Hispanic Bar Association, said he represents an illegal immigrant who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charge in 1988. The man was sentenced to less than 20 hours of community service. The Immigration and Naturalization Service discovered the charge -- and others the man had been cleared of -- when he applied for legal status. Now, the INS wants to deport him.

Word getting out

Immigrant advocates say many attorneys are not well versed in immigration law. Though unable to quantify the scope of the problem, they are confident noncitizens routinely plead guilty to crimes that they don't know can get them deported.

"If you go into District Court, you'll see it happen every day," said Douglas. "The word [about the new law] is getting out, but it still happens."

He added: "The bar was not carrying its load. Because [immigration law] was such an obscure area people were going into state courts and accepting dispositions which appeared on their face to be pretty good deals."

Arresting criminal aliens "is our No. 1 priority," said John E. Shallman, spokesman for the INS in Baltimore.

"If you are one of Maryland's 180,000 legal and law-abiding permanent residents, this law makes no difference. We have seen that this law has made life very difficult for illegal and criminal aliens," he said.

The proposal for the new warning, which will go this month to the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, would add language to questions routinely asked to ensure a defendant's decision to enter a guilty plea is well-informed.

That warning rarely results in a defendant withdrawing the plea, but immigration advocates say the new language will give noncitizen defendants a final chance.

"If that defendant hears the word 'immigration,' and he has never heard that from his attorney, that is his last chance," Estrada said.

After a public comment period on the proposal, the Court of Appeals can accept or reject it or request modifications.

"I think it's important that any defendant who is going to enter a guilty plea has an understanding of what's in store," said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of Maryland's Court of Special Appeals and the rules committee chairman. "It doesn't hurt to take 30 seconds longer to make sure the defendant understands."

Effects on courts

The rise in immigration has had other effects on the courts. Murphy said the money spent on translators has "skyrocketed" in 10 years, though statistics were not available.

Murphy said some judges in high-immigration areas have started including the warning.

Judge Audrey J. Carrion, a District Court judge in Baltimore, said she began advising all defendants in her courtroom about the immigration law last year.

"Some attorneys have approached me and said, 'I didn't think of ever doing that, judge,' " Carrion said.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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