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The Utah Supreme Court will allow an immigrant to withdraw from a plea deal that should have wiped his record clean but instead left him at risk of deportation.
The high court's opinion will remedy a legal complication that affects thousands of Utah immigrants, a lawyer for Sergio Meza said Wednesday.
"There's thousands of immigrants that now have a way to get the promise of a clean record," immigration attorney Aaron Tarin said, "after having held up their end of the bargain."
Tarin said his client did everything he was told after he was arrested with less than an ounce of marijuana. But three years later, Meza was still barred from applying for a green card to get permanent residency in the U.S.
Utah courts have a system for dismissing charges against reformed low-level offenders known as a plea in abeyance, but those charges still can come up during federal immigration proceedings.
State law allows convictions to be expunged from court records, but Meza wasn't considered convicted of the charges because the case was dismissed, leaving him caught in a legal Catch-22.
He appealed the case to the Utah Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November. In an opinion handed down Aug. 14, the high court ruled that Meza can file a motion to withdraw the plea using an open-ended legal provision that wasn't previously thought to apply to cases like his, Tarin said.
The attorney plans to file the motion to withdraw his client's plea in about three weeks, leaving time for revisions because it's the first of its kind. The opinion also clarifies that the current plea-in-abeyance system doesn't work for immigrants such as Meza.
Meza was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 1 year old, Tarin said. When he was arrested in 2010, his defense attorney said entering a no-contest plea wouldn't affect his immigration status. The case was dismissed after Meza paid a $1,000 fine and stayed out of trouble for the next year, according to court records.
But when Meza married a U.S. citizen and applied for a green card, he was told the charge makes him ineligible. Meza is in a deferred-action program for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as minors, which keeps him from being deported, but Tarin said the threat was still hanging over his head.
"There's this sense," Tarin said, "of being punished twice for the same crime."
The type of plea deal that Meza took is fairly common, the attorney said, but many immigrants in Utah may not know it's a problem until they come into contact with federal authorities.
Tarin's firm, Immigrant Defenders, has identified hundreds of their own clients, past and present, who could be affected. The firm is trying to contact them, and wants to work with non-profits like Communities United to spread the word, Tarin said.
Otherwise, there is almost no proactive way to let people know, so the "only way people will know is if they educate themselves," Tarin said.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Michael McFall contributed to this story