Supreme Court Rules Against Deportation for Minor Crimes

By Jason Beahm on June 16, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Should legal immigrants be subject to deportation when they are convicted of minor crimes, such as drug possession?

The Supreme Court emphatically ruled no on Tuesday, in 9-0 decision. The Court ruled in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder that legal immigrants cannot be deported for minor drug possession charges. In order for deportation to be appropriate, a person must be charged with serious or violent crimes.

The Court's ruling was a rebuke of a 1996 federal law that requires automatic deportation of non-citizens found guilty of an aggravated felony. Because the term aggravated felony was not carefully defined, immigration judges could loosely interpret it to include crimes such as a second drug possession conviction. 

The case before the court concerned Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, a lawful permanent resident from Texas who had lived legally in the United States since he was five years old. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug possession charges for possessing a joint and nolo contendere for possessing a single Xanax pill without a prescription. For the first charge he received 20 days in jail, for the second, he received 10 days. After his second conviction, an immigration judge, backed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, ordered Carachuri-Rosendo deported to Mexico.

Justice Stevens wrote the opinion for the Court and cited an old standby, Black's Law Dictionary, in his analysis:

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." A "felony," we have come to understand, is a "serious crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death."

We hold that when a defendant has been convicted of a simple possession offense that has not been enhanced based on the fact of a prior conviction, he has not been "convicted"...of a "felony punishable" as such "under the Controlled Substances Act."

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