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Supreme Court rules on 'aggravated felony' in immigration case

The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a person convicted under state law for simple drug possession, a federal law misdemeanor, has not been "convicted" of an "aggravated felony" for immigration removal purposes. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) [text], a lawful permanent resident who has been "convicted" of an "aggravated felony" is ineligible to seek cancellation of removal. The petitioner, Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, was convicted in state court on two separate occasions of misdemeanor drug charges. The state prosecutor was eligible to try the second charge as an "aggravated felony," but chose not to do so. After the second conviction, the federal government sought to have the petitioner, a legal immigrant, removed from the country because he had committed an "aggravated felony." The petitioner appealed the removal on the basis that he had not been convicted of an "aggravated felony." Justice John Paul Stevens, delivering the opinion of the court, reversed the lower court's ruling, holding:

Although a federal immigration court may have the power to make a recidivist finding in the first instance, it cannot, ex post, enhance the state offense of record just because facts known to it would have authorized a greater penalty under either state or federal law. Carachuri-Rosendo was not actually "convicted" of a drug possession offense committed "after a prior conviction . . . has become final," and no subsequent development can undo that history.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote concurring opinions in which they joined in the judgment only.

The court granted certiorari in the case to resolve a split among the circuits. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that a state law conviction for simple drug possession could be an "aggravated felony" if the defendant could have been charged with a felony, affirming the Board of Immigration Appeals holding that Carachuri-Rosendo is ineligible for cancellation of removal. During oral arguments [JURIST report], counsel for the petitioner argued that, "[i]ndividuals, such as Petitioner, who have been convicted of drug possession but as to whom there has been no finding of recidivism, have been convicted of a misdemeanor punishable under the Controlled Substances Act rather than a felony." Counsel for the US government argued that, "Congress's judgment here was that all aliens who engage in the same serious conduct would be treated the same for immigration purposes."

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