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The Nation

High Court Takes Deportation Case

It will decide whether auto theft is a felony that warrants expelling an immigrant in California.

September 27, 2006|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear a California case to decide whether immigrants convicted of stealing a car must be deported from the United States.

A strict federal immigration law passed in 1996 says that immigrants, including permanent residents, who commit an "aggravated felony" in the U.S. must be sent to their native country, regardless of how long they have lived here or whether they have a family and a job.

But the Justice Department and some lower courts have disagreed on which crimes, including auto theft, are aggravated felonies.

Next week, the high court will take up a separate South Dakota case to determine whether immigrants who are convicted of drug possession can be deported as felons. The outcome is expected to affect tens of thousands of immigrants nationally.

This week, the justices met for the first time since late June, and they announced they had agreed to hear nine of about 1,900 pending appeals, including the government's claim that auto thieves and their accomplices are guilty of a deportable crime.

The case before the court involves a California law regarding auto thefts, but government lawyers said all 50 states have similar measures.

Four years ago, Luis Alexander Duenas-Alvarez, a native of Peru who became a legal U.S. resident, pleaded guilty to stealing a 2002 Honda Accord in Marin County and was sentenced to three years in prison. Federal authorities took him into custody for deportation.

The 1996 law has a list of aggravated felonies that lead to deportation, including any theft that carries a prison sentence of more than a year.

Government lawyers contend that any immigrant convicted of auto theft in California should be deported under that law.

But this year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The court ruled that the California law was too broad to fit the definition of theft in the federal law because it included accomplices to auto theft.

The government counters that all states have laws that allow accomplices to be charged with auto theft.

In their appeal, government lawyers said the 9th Circuit was wrong on two points. First, Duenas-Alvarez stole the car and therefore was a thief, not an accomplice. And second, Congress meant to include accomplices when it wrote the law.

The government said at least 8,000 deportation cases in the nine Western states in the 9th Circuit would be affected by the court's ruling. The oral argument in Gonzales vs. Duenas-Alvarez was set for Dec. 5.

The justices also said Tuesday that they would reconsider the 9th Circuit's decision to reverse the death penalty that was given to an Arizona murderer who refused in 1990 to have mitigating evidence presented.

Once on Death Row, Jeffrey Landrigan appealed his sentence and claimed his lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence on his behalf. In March, the 9th Circuit agreed with his claim in a 9-2 decision.

In June, Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that federal judges should defer to state courts in most instances. And in this case, the state judges concluded the defendant, not his lawyer, was responsible for his plight. The high court will hear Schriro vs. Landrigan in January.

The justices also said they would consider reviving a Washington state law that shielded schoolteachers from having their dues used for political purposes without their permission.

In 1992, Washington's voters adopted a measure that required public employee unions to seek permission before any of a member's dues could be used for politics.

But this year, the Washington Supreme Court said that requirement violated the union's free-speech rights. The state and several teachers appealed.

The ruling in Washington vs. Washington Education Assn. is not likely to affect other states.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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