Las Vegas man, with criminal past, avoids deportation, awaits trial


Robert Craciun's criminal history is similar to that of many drug addicts: multiple plea deals with felonies reduced to misdemeanors and prison time quashed for probation.

Each time the 23-year-old Las Vegas man signed the deal he either ignored or was oblivious to the section that said if he was not a citizen, he could face deportation.

His latest plea deal - a wobbler, meaning he pleaded guilty to a felony but it could be reduced to a misdemeanor if he successfully completes probation - was no different.

But this time the guilty plea for felony attempted possession of a stolen vehicle, which comes with a potential one- to four-year prison sentence, triggered a review by immigration authorities.

Craciun emigrated from Romania with his mother when he was 4 years old, and never became a U.S. citizen.

That sets up a painful choice: Plead guilty and be sent to a country where he knows no one and doesn't speak the language, or risk being convicted at trial and getting the right to stay in the United States. In prison.

The prospect of being a stranger in a strange land led Craciun to do anything he could to "stay in jail," said his lawyer, Andrew Scott Flahive.

Last Tuesday Craciun got his wish. District Judge James Bixler allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea and stand trial.

Craciun's case, along with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, has changed how guilty pleas are given and taken in the Eighth Judicial District.

KENTUCKY CASE SET LEGAL PRECEDENT

The 2010 ruling by the nation's high court revolves around a truck driver who was arrested for transporting 1,000 pounds of marijuana in Kentucky.

Jose Padilla, a lawful 40-year U.S. resident and Vietnam War veteran, was a Honduran when he agreed to plead guilty in the 2001 case.

Padilla was told by his lawyer that he wouldn't be deported because he had been in the country for so long.

Immigration officials felt otherwise and moved to deport the father of six.

Desperate to stay in the United States and close to his family, Padilla appealed his case to the nation's high court, arguing he was given ineffective assistance of council by his lawyer.

The Supreme Court's opinion written by now retired Justice John Paul Stevens, noted that federal immigration law has changed drastically over the past century.

"While once there was only a narrow class of deportable offenses and judges wielded broad discretionary authority to prevent deportation, immigration reforms over time have expanded the class of deportable offenses and limited the authority of judges to alleviate the harsh consequences of deportation."

According to federal law, "any alien who - is convicted of a crime for which a sentence of one year or longer may be imposed, is deportable."

Because of such federal laws, Stevens wrote, "The importance of accurate legal advice for noncitizens accused of crimes has never been more important."

Noting the seriousness of deportation as a consequence and its impact on families, Stevens wrote, "We now hold that counsel must inform her client whether his plea carries a risk of deportation."

CRACIUN ADMITS NOT READING PLEA DEALl

The Craciun case probably is the first successful use of the Padilla ruling in Clark County.

At Tuesday's hearing, deputy public defender Darren Cox testified that he went over the guilty plea agreement with Craciun on Sept. 21, 2011, but didn't recall specifically pointing out the deportation consequences of his plea.

Transcripts show hearing master Melisa De La Garza never pointed out the possibility of deportation, either.

Prosecutor Nick Graham noted that Cox had gone through the guilty plea agreement with Craciun, and it included a paragraph warning that a guilty plea could change a defendant's immigration status, "including but not limited to removal from the United States."

Craciun admitted he never read the plea agreement and said he didn't have his contact lenses in at the time.

He told the court he took the plea deal in the hopes of successfully completing probation, having the felony dropped to a misdemeanor and then "joining the military."

His plan initially worked. He was released on probation, but soon was picked up on yet another charge. That put him in the cross hairs of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"So if you were sent to Romania it would be like, quite frankly, sending a U.S. citizen to a country they've never been to, with no contacts, no form of support and nowhere to live?" Flahive asked.

Craciun agreed: "My family's here. I have nothing over there. I don't know anybody over there. I wouldn't know what to do if I did go over there."

And while Craciun knows he isn't a U.S. citizen, his past guilty pleas had not caused him concern about deportation. "I didn't even know this was possible," he told Bixler.

After the testimony, Bixler ruled the language in the guilty plea agreement was not enough notice of the deportation consequences "when no one ever discussed it with him."

Bixler pointed out that all guilty plea agreements mentioned deportation but said the Supreme Court ruling requires specific notice.

"In this particular case no mention of it was ever made and the defendant was treated as if he was a citizen," Bixler said.

With that, Craciun won the right to face trial for his crimes. With Craciun in custody pending that trial, immigration officials last week dropped their deportation case.

EXPLANATION MUST BE GIVEN CLEARLY

Padilla's wide-reaching affect can now be seen in every guilty plea taken in the Eighth Judicial District in the past six months.

De La Garza said that before approving a plea deal, every judge now asks every defendant, regardless of their citizenship status, "Do you understand that if you are not a U.S. citizen you may be deported based on your guilty plea?"

De La Garza considers the question only a backup to the explanation that should be provided by a defendant's attorney.

But by raising the question as part of the guilty plea, it could avert future problems such as in the Craciun case, she said.

"If there is a question or concern, at a minimum there should be a discussion. It only takes 10 seconds to ask the question. And at least he (the defendant) has to physically tell me," De La Garza said.

Craciun now faces a Jan. 28 trial on three felony charges, including possession of a stolen vehicle and two counts of possession of a credit card without the owner's consent. If convicted, Craciun faces one to 13 years in prison and still will be deported.

But in a twist that points to an apparent miscommunication among federal and county authorities, Craciun late last week was released from jail in Henderson without having to post the $250,000 bail Bixler had set in the criminal case.

It seems that when the immigration case was dropped, jail officials saw only that the immigration hold was lifted and didn't check to see whether there was any other reason to detain him.

It's unclear where Craciun is now. Flahive late Friday declined to comment on the development.

Prosecutors likely will ask the judge to issue an arrest warrant for Craciun. Police will then try to track him down.

It's a good bet they won't find him in Romania.

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

 

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