Ramsey County’s lead prosecutor will hire an immigration lawyer to serve on his staff and help the office navigate deportation and other issues.
The new lawyer will be particularly helpful in deciding how to charge suspects who may face deportation if convicted, and when it may be appropriate to lessen those charges, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
“As prosecutors we have a duty to consider collateral consequences of what we do,” he said. Deportation is essentially a life sentence, he added.
Prosecutors are often asked by defense attorneys to consider lesser charges or agree to a plea deal that would avoid automatically triggering deportation proceedings. Sometimes those decisions are easy to make, and other times they’re much more complicated, Choi said.
The County has often hired immigration lawyers as consultants on complex cases. But as more cases come forward, Choi believes it will be more cost-effective to have an immigration lawyer on staff to be more consistent in how his office considers charges or plea deals.
“We’re not taking about cases with killers or rapists, but probationary-type offenses,” he said. “So these are cases where a U.S. citizen would get probation, but someone who doesn’t have that status would get convicted of the same charge and suffer a very harsh collateral consequence.”
He pointed to the case of Chamroeun Phan, a lawful resident brought to the U.S. as a baby by his parents fleeing the Cambodian genocide.
In 2009, when he was 34, Phan pleaded guilty to breaking windows at a bar, causing about $1,500 in damage. He was sentenced to a year in prison — long enough for federal officials to consider it an aggravated felony, triggering an ongoing deportation fight.
The new lawyer also will help residents who are trying to expunge their criminal records under a 2015 state law that made it easier for ex-offenders to have records of some low-level nonviolent crimes sealed. Prosecutors have been steadily getting more requests for expungement, Choi said.
The new lawyer also will help residents apply for U visas, given to victims of crimes who come forward to testify.
Choi said he wasn’t sure when the position will be filled.
Having an immigration lawyer on staff will prove to be a great tool for Ramsey County, said Robert Johnson, a retired longtime Anoka County prosecutor and former president of the National District Attorneys Association.
Prosecutors should treat deportation issues and collateral consequences like they are mandatory minimum sentences, Johnson said. There are cases when prosecutors think those consequences are too harsh, and they should charge a lesser crime, he said.
Then there are cases where the minimum may seem too harsh to a judge or a jury, and prosecutors will risk getting any conviction or accountability if they don’t choose to charge a lesser crime, he said.
“It’s supposed to be about seeking justice,” Johnson said. “A prosecutor has all this power, so ... they have to consider the collateral consequences.”
John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said he hopes the new position will help prosecutors consider the ramifications of charges and plea deals.
Since a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, the onus has been on public defenders and defense attorneys to explain to the defendant whether a plea deal or conviction would affect their immigration status, Keller said.
“So there’s a heavy responsibility on the public defender, but it’s less clear what’s expected from the prosecutor and judges,” he said. “You need an informed defendant, an informed judge and an informed prosecutor about the unique circumstance of deportation.”