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Supreme Court hears drug conviction deportation cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in the consolidated case of Lopez v. Gonzales and Toledo-Flores v. US [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], in which the Court will decide whether immigrants convicted of state drug felonies can remain in the US if their crimes were misdemeanors under federal law. Jose Lopez pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the possession of drugs after being arrested in 1997 and Reymundo Toledo-Flores was convicted of possessing cocaine in 2002. Neither was a US citizen. Lopez argued that his conviction was not a felony under the Controlled Substance Act but the US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that any drug conviction that would be a felony under state or federal law is an aggravated felony under the Immigration and Naturalization Act [text]. Toledo-Flores is appealing the imposition of an increase to the length of his sentence which was upheld [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit since any crime that is punishable by more than a year of imprisonment under state law is considered an aggravated felony, even if the same crime is considered a misdemeanor under federal criminal law. Government attorneys argued for deportation while the American Bar Association and civil and immigrant rights groups objected to having minor drug possession crimes be defined as aggravated felonies. The justices struggled with the federal statute, with Scalia questioning whether the case was moot since one of the two immigrants has already been deported to Mexico.

Also Tuesday, the Court heard oral arguments [text, PDF] in Ornaski v. Belmontes [Duke Law backgrounder, merit briefs], in which the Court will clarify the constitutionality of a California jury instruction in death penalty cases. Belmontes was convicted of first degree murder for the killing of a 19 year old woman during a burglary but appealed his death penalty sentence based on the failure of a jury instruction to inform the members of the jury that they could consider his probable future conduct in prison. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed [opinion, PDF] his conviction and California prosecutors appealed to have his sentence reinstated. AP has more.

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