The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for their official photo in Washington,… (Dennis Brack/Bloomberg )
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that legal immigrants convicted of small amounts of marijuana possession are not subject to mandatory deportation. I hope the decision will serve as a strong warning to federal authorities to stop using laws intended to deport serious criminals to go after green card holders convicted of minor drug offenses.
Tuesday’s decision involves Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican man who legally moved to the United States in 1984, when he was a three. In 2007, during a traffic stop police discovered about a small amount of marijuana in his car. He eventually pleaded guilty under Georgia law to possession with intent to distribute. The state judge ordered Moncrieffe to complete five years of probation, after which his charge would be expunged because he was a first time offender.
Federal prosecutors sought to deport Moncrieffe arguing that he pleaded guilty to a state law that included a provision to distribute drugs, therefore his conviction could be considered a drug trafficking crime and result in mandatory deportation.
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Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, legal immigrants convicted of certain crimes are deportable. But that law also allows those green card holders to ask an immigration judge for discretion in deciding whether to remove them or allow them to remain in the United States. Judges, however, are barred from exercising discretion in cases involving legal immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies, such as drug trafficking.
No one disputes that immigrants who are drug traffickers should be subject to mandatory deportation. But that’s not who federal officials sought to deport in this case.
What the government tried to do in Moncrieffe’s case is to turn a minor drug offense into a drug trafficking conviction. That’s absurd and unjust. Moncrieffe was found guilty of possessing the equivalent of three marijuana cigarettes. Moreover, there is no evidence that he received payment for the marijuana or sold it to anyone.
In the court’s 7-2 decision, the justices rightfully questioned the government’s misguided logic, noting that it sought to convert a federal misdemeanor into a federal felony.
Speaking for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said: “We cannot imagine that Congress took the trouble to incorporate its own statutory scheme of felonies and misdemeanors, only to have courts presume felony treatment and ignore the very factors that distinguish felonies from misdemeanors.”
Tuesday’s decision isn’t a surprise. The Supreme Court has blocked two previous attempts by the federal government to deport legal immigrants for minor drug possession. In 2010, the justices ruled that a Texas man convicted at different times of having a marijuana cigarette and a single Xanax anti-anxiety pill was wrongfully deported because his two convictions did not rise to the level of an aggravated felony.
In that case, Justice John Paul Stevens said the government’s view flouted common sense. “We do not usually think of a 10-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug as an 'aggravated felony,' " he wrote.
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