7th Circuit: Appellate waiver precludes Nigerian national’s appeal despite immigration risks

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An appellate waiver in a plea agreement has resulted in the dismissal of an appeal from a Nigerian national who pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. government out of millions. The dismissal comes as the man now faces deportation due to his crimes.

Taiwo Onamuti, a Nigerian citizen, pleaded guilty to identity theft and defrauding the U.S. Treasury out of $5 million through illegitimate tax refunds from 2014 to 2016. During that time, Onamuti led an identity theft ring responsible for filing almost 1,500 tax returns. The scheme required the use of stolen personal identifying information to file fraudulent returns requesting maximum refunds and then laundering the proceeds domestically and abroad.

A grand jury charged Onamuti with 11 counts of presenting false claims, nine counts of identity theft, two counts of aggravated identity theft and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Pleading guilty to one count each of false claims, identity theft and aggravated identity theft, Onamuti certified that he had read his plea agreement, talked it over with his attorney and understood its terms.

Onamuti expressly acknowledged in the plea agreement that while his plea “may have consequences” for his immigration status, he “nevertheless” wanted to accept responsibility for his conduct “regardless of any immigration consequences.” Additionally, he “expressly waive[d]” the right to appeal his conviction “on any ground” except a claim alleging the ineffective assistance of counsel.

Onamuti confirmed under oath that, by pleading guilty pursuant to the agreement, he “may very well be deported” and that he was waiving his appellate rights. Upon accepting his plea as knowing and voluntary, the Indiana Southern District Court sentenced him to 17 years’ imprisonment.

Onamuti later moved to withdraw his plea on the grounds that his lawyer failed to advise him that his convictions would subject him to mandatory deportation, but the district court denied that motion without a hearing. He then appealed the denial of an evidentiary hearing, but the 7th Circuit Court concluded that his challenge “runs headlong into the appellate waiver Onamuti agreed to in his plea agreement.”

“We see no reason in the record to find that Onamuti’s waiver was not knowing and voluntary. He repeatedly acknowledged, both in the plea agreement and while under oath before the district court, that he understood the rights he was waiving and the immigration consequences of his plea, all of which he confirmed having discussed with his attorney. Onamuti is bound to the waiver he agreed to,” Circuit Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the 7th Circuit panel.

The panel added a few words in response to Onamuti’s repeated suggestion that he pleaded guilty only because of inaccurate advice conveyed to him by his counsel in the district court. It noted that during oral argument his counsel assured the 7th Circuit that Onamuti pressed no ineffective assistance claim on appeal.

“The record contains only Onamuti’s unsworn assertions about what counsel told him. What is missing is any response from Onamuti’s original counsel as well as related perspectives on how Onamuti likely would have proceeded but for the allegedly deficient advice he received before choosing to plead guilty,” Scudder wrote.

“Even more, at oral argument, Onamuti’s counsel stated that he is not advancing an ineffective assistance claim on appeal. And in an admirable display of candor, counsel for the government stated that, based on the present record, it would not argue that the law-of-the-case doctrine precludes an ineffective assistance claim in a future § 2255 proceeding,” Scudder continued. “Whether Onamuti chooses to go forward on such a claim is up to him, and we express no view on the claim’s merits or likelihood of success.”

Confining itself to the “narrow question” of whether Onamuti’s appellate waiver precluded the 7th Circuit’s review of the district court’s denial of an evidentiary hearing on his motion to withdraw his plea, the panel concluded that Onamuti had waived the challenge. It therefore dismissed the appeal in the case of United States of America v. Taiwo K. Onamuti, 19-1153.

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