548 F.3d 327 (5th Cir. 2008), 07-40145, Santos-Sanchez v. United States

Docket Nº:07-40145.
Citation:548 F.3d 327
Party Name:Jesus Natividad SANTOS-SANCHEZ, Petitioner-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:November 06, 2008
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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548 F.3d 327 (5th Cir. 2008)

Jesus Natividad SANTOS-SANCHEZ, Petitioner-Appellant,


UNITED STATES of America, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 07-40145.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

November 6, 2008

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George W. Aristotelidis, Law Offices of Jorge Aristotelidis, San Antonio, TX, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Renata Ann Gowie, Asst. U.S. Atty., Houston, TX, for U.S.

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before REAVLEY, CLEMENT and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

PRADO, Circuit Judge:

This case primarily involves whether defense counsel or a trial judge must inform a criminal defendant of the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. The district court concluded that Jesus Natividad Santos-Sanchez (“ Santos-Sanchez" ) had failed to establish that his counsel provided ineffective assistance or that his plea was involuntary. For the following reasons, we affirm the ruling of the district court.


Santos-Sanchez has been a legal resident alien of the United States since 2001. On September 6, 2003, Santos-Sanchez drove into a United States Border Patrol checkpoint approximately fifteen miles north of Laredo, Texas. During an inspection, agents discovered that one of Santos-Sanchez's passengers was an undocumented alien. Santos-Sanchez was then arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the illegal entry of an alien in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1325 and 18 U.S.C. § 2(a).

Two days later, Santos-Sanchez appeared before a magistrate judge and pleaded guilty. Before entering his plea, Santos-Sanchez consulted with Assistant Federal Public Defender Myrna Montemayor (“ Montemayor" ). Another Assistant Federal Public Defender, Paul C. Saenz (“ Saenz" ), represented Santos-Sanchez during his plea colloquy. The magistrate judge sentenced Santos-Sanchez to one year of supervised probation and assessed a $100 fine and a $10 special assessment. Santos-Sanchez completed his probation without incident.

As a result of his guilty plea, the Department of Homeland Security (“ DHS" ) brought removal proceedings against Santos-Sanchez. DHS alleged that Santos-Sanchez was removable because he had knowingly encouraged, induced, assisted, abetted, or aided another alien to illegally enter the United States within five years of his entry into the country. See 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(1)(E)(i). An immigration judge (“ IJ" ) initially determined that Santos-Sanchez was not removable based upon his conviction. The Board of Immigration Appeals later disagreed, vacating the IJ's decision and remanding the case for a new ruling.

The IJ postponed entering the new ruling, however, due to Santos-Sanchez's filing a petition for a writ of coram nobis. Santos-Sanchez filed this petition with the magistrate judge that had accepted his guilty plea and sentenced him. In his petition, Santos-Sanchez alleged that his counsel provided ineffective assistance and that his guilty plea was involuntary. After a hearing and filings from both Santos-Sanchez and the government, the magistrate judge granted the petition for a writ of coram nobis, vacating Santos-Sanchez's conviction and ordering a new trial.

The government then moved the district court to strike the magistrate judge's order and remove the case to the district court. The district court granted the motion, holding that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to decide the petition. The district court thus vacated the magistrate judge's decision and noted that the petition remained pending before the district court. The district court later denied Santos-Sanchez's petition for a writ of coram nobis. This timely appeal followed.


We review the district court's assumption of subject matter jurisdiction de

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novo. Singh v. Duane Morris LLP, 538 F.3d 334, 337 (5th Cir.2008). On appeal from a district court's denial of a petition for a writ of coram nobis, we review factual findings for clear error, questions of law de novo, and the district court's ultimate decision to deny the writ for abuse of discretion. See United States v. Mandanici, 205 F.3d 519, 524 (2d Cir.2000); Alikhani v. United States, 200 F.3d 732, 734 (11th Cir.2000). We note that “ [a] district court abuses its discretion when it bases its decision on an erroneous legal conclusion or on a clearly erroneous finding of fact." James v. Cain, 56 F.3d 662, 665 (5th Cir.1995) (citing McGary v. Scott, 27 F.3d 181, 183 (5th Cir.1994)).


A. Jurisdiction

Santos-Sanchez argues that the district court erred in vacating the magistrate judge's order. The district court held that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction because (1) delegation of such authority to a magistrate judge would violate Article III of the Constitution, and (2) the district court had not referred the case to the magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) or § 636(c)(1). We affirm the district court's conclusion solely on the lack of referral.

Santos-Sanchez first suggests that the magistrate judge had authority to hear his petition because she was the judge who sentenced him. He notes that “ [a] coram nobis proceeding is brought in the sentencing court, like a § 2255 motion." United States v. Cooper, 876 F.2d 1192, 1194 (5th Cir.1989) (italics omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Smith v. Barry, 502 U.S. 244, 112 S.Ct. 678, 116 L.Ed.2d 678 (1992) . As Santos-Sanchez pleaded before and was sentenced by a magistrate judge, he suggests that the magistrate judge was the only proper forum in which to file his petition. Santos-Sanchez essentially argues that the magistrate judge's statutory authority to sentence him implicitly included the authority to hear his petition for a writ of coram nobis.

In determining whether a magistrate judge has the authority to address a particular claim, we ask first whether Congress intended for the magistrate judge to perform that task, and then whether such exercise of authority is constitutional. See United States v. Johnston, 258 F.3d 361, 363-64 (5th Cir.2001); United States v. Dees, 125 F.3d 261, 264 (5th Cir.1997). Congress explicitly granted a magistrate judge the authority to conduct misdemeanor trials and impose sentences for petty offenses in 28 U.S.C. § 636(a). That same section, however, also includes two distinct avenues for a magistrate judge to hear applications for post-trial relief (such as a petition for a writ of coram nobis). Under § 636(b)(1)(B), a district court can refer an application for post-trial relief to a magistrate judge for hearings and a recommended disposition. Under § 636(c)(1), a magistrate judge can hear and decide any civil case, including civil applications for post-trial relief, when the district court designates it to do so and the parties consent. We do not think that Congress would explicitly provide two ways for a magistrate judge to hear a petition for a writ of coram nobis but silently intend that the magistrate judge's authority over certain criminal matters include a third. In light of these provisions, we do not interpret the magistrate judge's authority to sentence Santos-Sanchez as inherently including the authority to hear a subsequent petition for a writ of coram nobis.

Santos-Sanchez also argues that the magistrate had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Section 636(c)(1) provides, in pertinent part,

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Upon the consent of the parties, a full-time United States magistrate judge ... may conduct any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case, when specially designated to exercise such jurisdiction by the district court or courts he serves.

Accordingly, for the magistrate judge to hear Santos-Sanchez's petition for a writ of coram nobis pursuant to § 636(c)(1), (1) the parties must have consented to proceed before the magistrate judge, (2) the proceeding must be a civil matter, and (3) the district court must have specially designated the magistrate judge to exercise such jurisdiction.

The parties agree that the petition was a civil matter but dispute whether the government consented to the proceedings before the magistrate judge. We see a more fundamental error, however, in the lack of a special designation by the district court. Although neither party raises the issue of special designation, “ [t]he district court's order of reference, or special designation, pursuant to § 636(c)(1), is a jurisdictional concern" that we must examine, sua sponte if necessary. Hill v. City of Seven Points, 230 F.3d 167, 168 (5th Cir.2000). “ [W]hen the magistrate enters judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), absence of the appropriate consent and reference (or special designation) order results in a lack of jurisdiction ...." Mendes Junior Int'l Co. v. M/V Sokai Maru, 978 F.2d 920, 924 (5th Cir.1992). There is no indication in the record that the district court ever referred or specially designated Santos-Sanchez's petition to the magistrate judge, and the district court noted that it had not done so. The magistrate judge thus did not have jurisdiction to hear Santos-Sanchez's petition under § 636(c)(1).

Consequently, we affirm the district court's conclusion that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to hear Santos-Sanchez's petition. Because we hold that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction on statutory grounds, we express no opinion as to the district court's conclusion that the magistrate judge's exercise of jurisdiction in the present case would violate Article III of the Constitution. We thus turn to the merits of Santos-Sanchez's appeal from the district court's judgment.

B. Merits of the Writ of Coram Nobis

In United States v. Esogbue, this court described the writ of coram nobis as follows:

The writ of coram nobis is an extraordinary remedy available to a petitioner no longer in custody who seeks to vacate a...

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