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All Cog, No Machine; All Check, No Balance

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
I want to start a series of occasional columns about how in modern America, everything is so complicated that we can't get simple things done. When you look at government -- the criminal justice system, the courts, the federal budget -- engines that used to work smoothly now are sputtering. They're all cog, no machine. That's why so many Americans are angry at the system -- it's all check, no balance.

At first blush, the story of Mark Matute, as The Chronicle's Bob Egelko reported Wednesday, seemed to typify all-cog no-machine syndrome. Matute was 4 months old when he legally entered the United States from the Philippines 37 years ago. In March 2005, he pleaded no contest to a burglary charge in San Mateo, Calif. While he was out on probation in 2006, Matute pleaded no contest to possession of a stolen vehicle. That earned Matute a 16-month prison term -- which, thanks to a 1996 federal law, made Matute eligible for deportation.

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Of course, this being America, first there would be appeals, even though Matute had agreed to his punishment and signed a plea agreement that stipulated, "I understand that if I am not a citizen, conviction of the offense for which I have been charged will have the consequences of deportation, exclusion from admission to the United States or denial of naturalization." His appellate attorneys would argue that Matute did not understand what he swore he understood.

An appeal filed by attorney Daniel Mayfield argued that the plea should be vacated dropped because there was no place next to this admonition for the defendant to initial. When a judge asked, "Do you understand that if you are not a citizen of the United States that conviction for this offense will result in your deportation or exclusion from admission to the United States?" Matute answered, "Yes, your honor."

But the judge left out the language on naturalization. "He did it incompletely," explained another Matute attorney, Robert Vallandigham.

"What's the harm in requiring the court to make the defendant focus" on each item, he asked. The harm is, it never ends.

Last month, the First District Court of Appeal denied Matute's appeal. The good news is that the court did not issue a ruling that could lead to state legal forms that ask in five different places, do you really, really, really know what you're doing? Initial here, here and here. Also, parties on both sides expect this ruling to end this case.

Besides, as it turns out, Matute was deported last year. Note to self: Sometimes the machine delivers as promised.

I don't understand, I tell his wife, Joanna Truitt of Stockton, Calif., over the phone, how Matute could not have understood the consequences of his crimes and conviction. Truitt tells me she was in court with Matute and what he heard was "legal mumbo jumbo."

And: "I am not saying he is not accountable at all for his answer. Please don't say I'm saying that. I am saying that the system is really flawed. It's like fast food."

Truitt also tells me that Matute changed after their 2-year-old son was born.

The 2005 burglary charge? Not quite what you'd think. Deputy Attorney General Allan Yannow explained that court documents show two counts of commercial burglary involving someone else's checks being used at Albertson's and Target. If Matute had completed his probation, he would not have been deported.

Possession of a stolen car in 2006? According to the preliminary hearing transcript, Yannow noted, Matute was found with a stolen car in which police found hypodermic needles, a fake license plate, baggies with narcotics residue and someone else's checkbook.

Did he have a job? Yes, Truitt said, but he got it without presenting a green card. In fact, she said, "I'm the one who pushed him, 'Go get your green card.'"

Immigration officials tell me that they see many cases of legal immigrants reapplying for their green , unaware that, while they may have dodged deportation at the time of sentencing, if their applications reveal convictions for aggravated felonies (that is, involving sentences of more than one year) or crimes of moral turpitude, they will land in the sights of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As a result, there is now a cottage industry of attorneys who specialize in post-conviction appeals for legal immigrants. Oh joy, their success could mean more retrials for convicted criminals.

Back to Matute. If you can't get a guy to consider the consequences and stay away from stolen cars while on probation after a judge talks to him about the likely fallout, what do you do?

Politicians who talk up immigration "reform" always promise background checks because the American public has little desire to import criminals. Well, this is what a background check looks like. Except that after Washington passes laws to give the public what they want, activists use the courts to try to grind the system to a near halt.

Vallandigham complained that federal law "sees the world in black and white and not shades of gray." But that is what the law is -- drawing lines. And if it's all gray, you end up with all legal argument, no order.

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