Dismissal of 2-1401 petition affirmed where defendant’s conviction was not void

The appellant in People v. Abtahi, 2020 IL App (1st) 181631, appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his section 2-1401 petition, arguing on appeal that the circuit court erred by dismissing the petition without considering his argument on the merits. The First District Appellate Court affirmed.

Farzad Abtahi was originally charged with manufacture or delivery of a substance containing heroin. Prior to trial, Abtahi and the State agreed that he would plead guilty to Class 1 possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance in exchange for a recommendation of probation. Id. at ¶ 5. The trial court accepted the plea and sentenced Abtahi to two years’ probation. Id. at ¶ 7. Abtahi did not appeal or file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea after being admonished of his right to do so.

In 2017, Abtahi, represented by the same attorney from the original plea hearing, filed a section 2-1401 petition alleging that the trial court knew Abtahi was not a US citizen but had failed to admonish him that he was pleading guilty to a “deportable offense.” Id. at ¶ 8. The petition argued that “the lack of proper admonishment regarding the effect of his plea on his immigration status was clearly a prime factor in [his] decision to plead guilty,” that Abtahi had a meritorious defense, that Abtahi would likely not have been found guilty at trial,  and that the factual basis for the plea failed to establish unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Id. at ¶ 8.

The 2-1401 petition, which filed after the two-year statute of limitations expired, effectively alleged that the conviction was “void” and should be vacated. In response, the State filed a motion to dismiss the petition, arguing that Abtahi failed to demonstrate that his petition was exempt from the limitations period because the trial court had personal and subject-matter jurisdiction, the statute Abtahi was charged and convicted under was constitutional; and Abtahi had not alleged disability, duress or fraud. Id. at ¶ 9. The circuit court dismissed the petition, finding that it was untimely and that Abtahi had failed to demonstrate the trial court’s lack of personal or subject matter jurisdiction and did not allege that his conviction rested on a facially unconstitutional statute. Id. at ¶ 12. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Abtahi argued that the trial court abused its discretion by dismissing his section 2-1401 petition without addressing the merits because Abtahi “never pled guilty on the record and, therefore, the trial court did not have jurisdiction to enter his guilty plea or sentence him.” Id. at ¶ 14. In its review, the appellate court noted that in order to prevail on a section 2-1401 petition, a movant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence: 1) the existence of a meritorious claim or defense, 2) due diligence in presenting the claim or defense, and 3) due diligence in filing the petition. Id. at ¶ 15. Further, the appellate court noted that the exception to the two-year statute of limitations on such petitions is valid only if the petition attacks a final judgment on voidness grounds–meaning that the judgment was entered by a court lacking jurisdiction or that the conviction stemmed from a facially unconstitutional statute.

Here, because Abtahi argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter judgment on the guilty plea, and not that he was convicted under a facially unconstitutional statute, the court only evaluated that potential exception to the two-year limitation on section 2-1401 petitions. The court ruled that the record clearly demonstrated the trial court’s personal and subject-matter jurisdiction when it entered judgment on Abtahi’s guilty plea. Further, the court held that by being present at the plea hearing, Abtahi had conferred personal jurisdiction on the trial court. As such, the court held that Abtahi failed to demonstrate the judgment was void and thus was not excused from the limitations period. Id. at ¶ 19.

The First District affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

 

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