NEW Appellate Opinion Analyzing Penal Code section 1473.7

On June 26, 2019, the California Court of Appeal certified for publication a new appellate opinion analyzing issues pertaining to Penal Code section 1473.7.

In 1994 the defendant in People v. Fernando Vargas Mejia, out of the Superior Court of Orange, pled guilty to three drug crimes. Mr. Mejia is now facing immigration consequences as a result of these convictions (mandatory deportation) and sought relief pursuant to Penal Code section 1473.7. The trial court denied this motion, finding that Mr. Mejia did not prove an IAC claim. Mr. Mejia appealed.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order denying Mr. Mejia’s motion holding that “to establish a ‘prejudicial error’ under section 1473.7, a person need only show by a preponderance of the evidence: 1) he did not ‘meaningfully understand’ or ‘knowingly accept’ the actual or potential adverse immigration consequences of the plea; and 2) had he understood the consequences, it is reasonably probable he would have instead attempted to ‘defend against’ the charges.”

In the appeal, Mr. Mejia argued that Penal Code section 1473.7, as amended and effective January 1, 2019, allows a noncitizen defendant to vacate a guilty plea if he or she “did not understand the true implications of the plea deal before accepting it and where the defendant suffered prejudice.” Mr. Mejia argued that the key to the statute is the mindset of the defendant and what he or she understood at the time the plea was taken, not whether the attorney technically provided IAC. The Court of Appeal agreed.

In its Opinion, the Court of Appeal conducted a thorough review of the statutory and case law relating to advising noncitizen defendants of the immigration consequences of the their pleas beginning with the enactment of Penal Code section 1016.5 and outlining the findings and declarations of Penal Code section 1016.2 and the codification of Padilla.

The Court of Appeal then summarized the recent decision in People v. Camacho (2019) 32 Cal. App. 5th 998. The appellate court in Mejia stated that they agree with the Second District Court of Appeal’s analysis in Camacho that when analyzing a motion pursuant to Penal Code section 1473.7 the superior court is required to make a finding of legal invalidity if the defendant “simply proves by a preponderance of the evidence a ‘prejudicial error damaging the moving party’s ability to meaningfully understand, defend against, or knowingly accept the actual or potential adverse immigration consequences of a plea.’” The focus of the inquiry in a Section 1473.7 motion is on the defendant’s own error in not knowing that his plea would subject him to mandatory deportation and permanent exclusion from the United States.

This appellate court also agreed with the prejudice analysis in Camacho, stating that prejudicial error occurs when “there is a reasonable probability that the person would not have pleaded guilty – and would have risked going to trial (even if only to figuratively throw a ‘Hail Mary’) – had the person known that the guilty plea would result in mandatory and dire immigration consequences.

The trial court’s order was reversed, and the matter was remanded to the superior court to allow the defendant to withdraw his pleas.

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