- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - 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 after having held up their end of the bargain,” immigration attorney Aaron Tarin said.

Tarin said his 23-year-old 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 can still 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.

Tarin is planning 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 like Meza.

Meza is one of many immigrants around the country who has received a reprieve based on precedent set in 2010 when U.S. Supreme Court ruled that immigrants can claim ineffective counsel if their criminal attorneys don’t properly warn them about deportation risks, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law.

That ruling is cited in the Utah opinion. The decision sent a very different signal to courts about how to handle the intersection of criminal law and immigration law, Chishti said. “It laid the foundation for inviting courts to find effective remedies against ineffective counsel like this,” he said.

Meza, whose full legal name is Sergio Meza Ramos, was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 8 years old. 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.

“I was just basically a dumb kid, hanging out with the wrong people,” Meza said about the charge. The case was a wake-up call, and he worked hard to complete the court’s requirements, which also including drug counseling.

But when Meza married a U.S. citizen and applied for a green card, he was nevertheless 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 the threat was still hanging over his head.

“We want to start a family, but we’re both too terrified to have a baby because I don’t want to up one day wake up and my husband is gone,” said his wife, Chelsea Meza.

The state Supreme Court decision gives the Springdale couple hope that they’ll be able to move on.

The type of plea deal that Meza took is fairly common, but many immigrants in Utah may not know it’s a problem until they come into contact with federal authorities, he said.

“There’s this sense of being punished twice for the same crime,” Tarin said.

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This story has been corrected to show Meza was 8 when he was brought to the U.S., not 1 year old.

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Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.

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