Kimberly Atkins' article doesn't mention any comments or questions from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the sole Hispanic on the Court, but I would be surprised if she votes for deportation of the Hispanic criminal. If the typical pattern holds, Alito, Roberts and Thomas will join Scalia and Kennedy to prevail 5-4 over Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Stevens.
Court considers if two misdemeanors equal a felony
By Kimberly Atkins
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court took up a case Wednesday that considers whether a person who was convicted of two misdemeanors - therefore qualifying for, but never charged with, a felony enhancement - is guilty of an “aggravated felony” under immigration law.
The case, Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, involves Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, a permanent U.S. resident from Mexico who pleaded guilty to possession of a marijuana joint - a misdemeanor - in 2004. In 2005 he pleaded guilty to illegal possession of one Xanax tablet without a prescription - another misdemeanor.
Although he could have been prosecuted under a recidivism statute that would have elevated the second charge to a felony, the prosecutor chose not to seek an enhancement.
Carachuri-Rosendo then received notice of removal proceedings. At a hearing, an immigration law judge held that he was subject to deportation. The judge reasoned that the second conviction qualified as an “aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act because it could have justified a felony sentence under the Controlled Substances Act. (The INA authorizes deportation for anyone convicted of a crime “punishable” under the CSA.)
Carachuri-Rosendo appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals and ultimately to the 5th Circuit, which both affirmed.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case.
What is ‘punishable’?
Sri Srinivasan, a partner in the Washington office of O’Melveny & Myers, argued that the “aggravated felony” trigger should not have come into play absent a court ruling on recidivism.
“At the very least [the defendant] would have had to have been found to be a recidivist under a state provision that attaches sentencing consequences to being found to have been a recidivist,” Srinivasan argued.
“But this was ‘punishable‘ as a felony because it was his second drug offense,” Justice Antonin Scalia said, referring to the language of the INA. “He was a recidivist. And although it was only a misdemeanor under state law, under the Controlled Substances Act he could be prosecuted for a felony.”
“But he has to have been convicted of the felony,” Srinivasan replied. “That is the critical distinction.”
Scalia said a conviction wasn’t necessary under the text of the law.
“The critical language is ‘punishable,’” Scalia said, emphasizing every syllable of the word. “The truth is, he could be punished for a felony.”
“He has to be convicted of a felony,” Srinivasan asserted. “In absence of that finding he hasn’t been convicted of an ‘aggravated felony.’”
Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that five states have no recidivism statutes at all, so there could be uneven results.
“If you have one of those states with no recidivist provisions and you have ten separate possession convictions, [the defendant is] still not a recidivist under the federal rules,” Kennedy observed.
“That doesn’t mean that those prior convictions don’t enter into the picture at all,” Srinivasan said, noting that federal authorities can take those convictions into account when considering removal actions.
Felony to have ‘one Xan-something pill’?
Nicole A. Saharsky, assistant to the solicitor general, argued on the government’s behalf that state court action is not the determinate factor in deciding who is an aggravated felon under federal law.
“Congress’s judgment here was that all aliens who engage in the same serious conduct would be treated the same for immigration purposes,” Saharsky said. “What [the defendant] is saying is: ‘I don’t want my aggravated felony to count because of the difference in state law.’”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered if the punishment fit the crimes.
“If you could just present this scenario to an intelligent person who didn’t go to law school, that you are going to not only remove him from this country, but say never, ever darken our doors again because of one marijuana cigarette and one Xan-something pill - it just seems to me that if there is a way of reading the statute that would not lead to that absurd result, you would want to read the statute” that way, Ginsburg said.
Saharsky said the result is the one Congress intended.
“What controls is Congress’s judgment, and Congress has taken a hard line over the past 20 years on criminal aliens, particularly recidivist criminal aliens,” Saharsky said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, using a hypothetical of a gentle “pussycat burglar” armed only with a pillow, said that the case illustrates the same practical problem present in cases involving other sentence-boosting statutes, such as the Armed Career Criminal Act: people committing relatively minor crimes facing dire consequences based on unclear state and federal laws.
Breyer said he feared a ruling in the government’s favor could “get [a] very mixed up area of the law which we have tried to straighten out [o]nce again totally mixed up. That’s my concern.”
A decision is expected by this summer.
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