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Justices give break to legal immigrants convicted of pot possession

April 23, 2013|By David G. Savage
  • People line up to enter the Supreme Court.
People line up to enter the Supreme Court. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has extended some leniency to legal immigrants who are convicted of having a small amount of marijuana, ruling that such a crime is not an “aggravated felony” that leads to deportation.

In 7-2 decision, the justices said the government must show that a defendant sold the drugs or possessed a significant quantity for the crime to be deemed an aggravated felony.

Under the terms of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a non-citizen who is guilty of an “aggravated felony” is slated for deportation, regardless of whether he or she has lived legally and productively in the United States.

But the justices have been wary of seemingly minor state crimes being treated as though they were serious felonies.

In the case decided Tuesday, a Jamaican man who had lived legally in Georgia since 1984 was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute as a first-time drug offender for having 1.3 grams of marijuana in his car.

“That is the equivalent of two or three marijuana cigarettes,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Although the defendant, Adrian Moncrieffe, was given probation by Georgia authorities, federal authorities said he was subject to deportation under federal immigration law. Federal prosecutors in Moncrieffe’s case reasoned that possession of marijuana with an intent to distribute is a drug-trafficking crime that qualifies as a felony.

Sotomayor, speaking for the court, said this makes no sense in a case where the amount of the drug was tiny and there was no evidence that money changed hands. “Sharing a small amount of marijuana for no remuneration,” she said, “does not fit easily in the everyday understanding of trafficking, which ordinarily means some sort of commercial dealing.”

“If a non-citizen’s conviction for marijuana distribution offense fails to establish that the offense involved either remuneration or more than a small amount of marijuana, the conviction is not an aggravated felony under the INA,” she said in Moncrieffe vs. Holder.

Sotomayor predicted that the decision would have a relatively limited effect because possession of small amounts of marijuana has not been treated as a serious crime in most states.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented. Thomas said drug possession is treated as a felony under Georgia law.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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