2nd Circ. Revives Tax Fraud Denaturalization Fight

woman who said her lawyer misled her about the consequences of pleading guilty to tax fraud had her bid to overturn her conviction and retain her U.S. citizenship revived by the Second Circuit on Monday, with the court saying more facts were needed before a ruling was possible.

Cleopatra Rodriguez became a naturalized citizen in 2007 and was indicted two years later for allegedly taking part in a tax scheme. She struck a plea agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to 90 days in prison, but said she was alarmed in 2014 when the government moved to strip her of her citizenship, saying her lawyer told her she didn’t have to worry.

Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child, sought a writ of error coram nobis that would reverse her conviction and guilty plea and possibly halt denaturalization proceedings against her. A district judge turned her down, but in a summary order on April 16, an appeals panel said there were too many unanswered questions about her criminal case.

“On this record, it is not clear whether there was a reasonable probability that counsel could have negotiated a plea that did not impact Rodriguezʹs immigration status, and indeed, the record is silent as to whether any such discussions took place or whether counsel even considered the possibility of denaturalization,” the court ruled.

The three-judge panel said Rodriguez’s case was not as clear-cut as the case of Stephen Kovacs, an Australian with a green card whose bid for a writ of error coram nobis prevailed before the Second Circuit in 2014 after he evidenced a “single-minded focus” on avoiding immigration consequences. Unlike Kovacs, for instance, Rodriguez didn’t submit an affidavit from her previous attorney to back up her claim that she wouldn’t have accepted the plea bargain if she fully grasped the consequences, the court noted.

But the panel said there were enough questions raised that the lower court should flesh out the facts further. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court‘s urging in its 2017 immigration decision Lee v. U.S. that judges look for evidence in the record of what a defendant intended when they pled guilty, the panel noted that Rodriguez lived in the U.S. for 13 years, worked several jobs to support her family and expressed a desire to continue doing so.