Earlier this year, I detailed the life and legal battle of José Espino-Paez, a noncitizen who has lived in northern Colorado for nearly 25 years. Last September, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against Espino-Paez in his effort to remain in the country with his wife and four children after a complex and confounding legal battle. Espino-Paez’s lawyers appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, and this week the state’s highest court announced it would hear José Espino-Paez v. People. “I think it’s a good sign,” says Hans Meyer, one of Espino-Paez’s attorneys.
At the heart of Espino-Paez’s case is a discrepancy in the way Colorado statutes and federal immigration laws treat a criminal sentence known as a “deferred judgment.” Often given to first-time offenders, deferred judgments are meant to provide defendants with a second chance. The sentence works like this: If a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a crime, he or she can enter a probation-type program, often for a year or two. If the individual successfully completes that program, he or she can return to court and a judge will withdraw the guilty plea and dismiss the case. As far as the state of Colorado is concerned, the guilty plea no longer exists.
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The problem for noncitizens, however, is that federal immigration law still views successfully completed deferred judgments as convictions—and those convictions can lead to deportations. To put it plainly: The state and federal laws do not speak the same language on this particular legal issue.
The facts of Espino-Paez’s case are these: In 1996, he was arrested for possession of a Schedule II controlled substance. The district attorney prosecuting the case offered Espino-Paez a deferred judgment, and Espino-Paez took the deal. He says his public defender did not warn him that the sentence could cause problems with his immigration status down the road.
Espino-Paez successfully completed the terms of his deferred judgment agreement, and a year later a judge withdrew his guilty plea. In the following years, Espino-Paez met a woman; they eventually married and had four children. Almost 20 years after the judge had withdrawn his guilty plea, Espino-Paez had the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency. (He had applied years earlier, but his paperwork had been caught in a lengthy backlog of applications.) The government denied Espino-Paez’s application because federal immigration law considered the guilty plea he entered for his deferred judgment a conviction.
Espino-Paez’s lawyers have argued that he should be able to withdraw his guilty plea since his attorney at the time did not warn him of the potential immigration consequences of his deferred judgment. The state of Colorado, however, has argued that it has already withdrawn Espino-Paez’s guilty plea and, essentially, is not able to withdraw something that no longer exists. So far, the lower courts have agreed with the state’s argument.
Meyer and his colleague, Antony Noble, who specializes in criminal appeals, will now argue Espino-Paez’s case before the Colorado Supreme Court. If Espino-Paez loses his case, he could be forced to leave his family and return to Mexico, a place where he has not lived for more than two decades. (Local immigration attorneys have estimated there could be hundreds of others in the state in legal situations similar to that of Espino-Paez.) “The decision,” Meyer says, “could have really wide-reaching implications for Colorado people who are stuck in the same situation.”
But, at least for now, Espino-Paez was happy to have received the latest news. “I was so excited,” he says. “I was crying and hugging my wife.”