Lying to the FBI is a bad idea. For an alien, lying to the FBI is even more dangerous, as it could be considered aggravated felony for immigration removal. Ramani Pilla learned that lesson the hard way.
This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Ramani Pilla's writ of coram nobis as she attempted to overturn her conviction and subsequent removal for lying to the FBI, finding that Pilla could not prove the merits of her ineffective counsel claim.
While employed as an assistant professor at Case Western University, Pilla told the FBI that she had received several pieces of hate mail at her office. The FBI and the university spent thousands of dollars investigating Pilla's report before she admitted to writing and delivering the hate mail herself. After Pilla pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, she was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay more than $66,000 in restitution.
Pilla's attorney, Steven Bell, encouraged her to plead guilty after the government provided him with overwhelming evidence of her guilt, including photographic evidence of Pilla committing the crime and her confession.
Pilla is not a United States citizen, so Bell considered whether a guilty plea might have immigration consequences for her. After determining that the immigration removal issue was beyond the scope of his expertise, he enlisted the assistance of Robert Brown, an immigration attorney with an impressive resume that included a stint as an acting regional director for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Brown said that "the charge to which Dr. Pilla was going to in all likelihood enter a guilty plea was not an aggravated felony," so it would not have compelled deportation.
Brown's advice turned out to be incorrect.
An immigration judge determined that lying to the FBI was, in fact, an aggravated felony and that Pilla was removable.
After completing her prison sentence, Pilla filed a petition for a writ of coram nobis -- an extraordinary writ that may be used to "vacate a federal sentence or conviction when a 28 USC § 2255 habeas corpus motion is unavailable" -- in the district court. In the petition, she argued that Bell was ineffective counsel for failing to advise her that a guilty plea would result in immigration removal. The district court denied the writ.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court. The appellate court found that Pilla would not have prevailed because she could not show that she was prejudiced by ineffective counsel. Pilla faced overwhelming evidence of her guilt; had she gone to trial, the consequences almost certainly would have been worse.
Finding that no rational defendant in Pilla's position would have proceeded to trial in this situation, the Sixth Circuit found that Pilla could not prove that Bell's advice created even a "reasonable probability" of prejudice, much less that Bell's advice "probably ... altered the outcome of the challenged proceeding," as required for a writ of coram nobis.
- Ramani Pilla v. United States (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- How to Avoid Going to Jail under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 for Lying to Government Agents (FindLaw)
- Attorney's Nap During Trial Doesn't Mean Counsel Was Ineffective (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit blog)