U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS rules for Jamaican immigrant fighting mandatory deportation after pot guilty plea

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for a Jamaican immigrant trying to avoid mandatory deportation after police discovered a small amount of marijuana in his car during a 2007 traffic stop.

The court ruled for Adrian Moncrieffe in a 7-2 decision (PDF). The amount of marijuana found in his car was the equivalent of two or three marijuana cigarettes. At issue was whether his Georgia guilty plea—to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute—constituted illicit trafficking, an “aggravated felony” that makes offenders subject to deportation without the possibility of discretionary relief.

The Georgia law banned both paid and unpaid distribution of marijuana; the latter was a misdemeanor. The record as to remuneration was unclear in Moncrieffe’s case, though his charge would be expunged after he successfully completed five years of probation.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion that the ambiguity must be construed in Moncrieffe’s favor. “If a noncitizen’s conviction for a marijuana distribution offense fails to establish that the offense involved either remuneration or more than a small amount of marijuana, the conviction is not for an aggravated felony” under the Immigration and Nationality Act, she wrote.

“This is the third time in seven years that we have considered whether the government has properly characterized a low-level drug offense as ‘illicit trafficking in a controlled substance,’ and thus an ‘aggravated felony,’ ” Sotomayor wrote. “Once again we hold that the government’s approach defies ‘the “commonsense conception” ’ of these terms.”

About half the states criminalize marijuana distribution through statutes that do not require remuneration or any minimum amount of marijuana. Defendants convicted under such statutes may avoid mandatory deportation, Sotomayor said, but they may still be subject to deportation as a controlled substance offender. The difference is that they may seek discretionary relief from deportation.

Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote separate dissents.

“Under the court’s holding today,” Alito wrote, “drug traffickers in about half the states are granted a dispensation. In those states, even if an alien is convicted of possessing tons of marijuana with the intent to distribute, the alien is eligible to remain in this country.”

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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