April 23, 2013

Supreme Court Decides Moncrieffe v. Holder

On April 23, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Moncrieffe v. Holder, No. 11-702, holding that, under the categorical approach for determining whether state convictions are aggravated felonies that require deportation and preclude discretionary relief under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), conviction of a state drug offense that does not necessarily establish conduct punishable as a felony under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is not an aggravated felony, even if the underlying facts would support a felony conviction.

Petitioner Adrian Moncrieffe is a Jamaican citizen who came to the United States in 1984. In 2007, police found 1.3 grams of marijuana—the equivalent of two or three marijuana cigarettes—in Moncrieffe's car during a traffic stop. Moncrieffe pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, in violation of a Georgia state statute. The federal government sought to deport Moncrieffe, arguing that his Georgia conviction was an offense punishable by five years' imprisonment under the CSA and, therefore, an aggravated felony as defined by the INA. The immigration judge agreed and ordered Moncrieffe's removal, and the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed. The Fifth Circuit denied Moncrieffe's petition for review, holding that, because the default sentencing range in federal criminal prosecutions for marijuana distribution is the felony provision of the CSA, rather than the misdemeanor provision, Moncrieffe's Georgia offense was equivalent to a federal felony.

The Supreme Court reversed. The INA provides that noncitizens convicted of an aggravated felony may be deported and precludes the Attorney General from granting otherwise available discretionary relief from removal, such as asylum and cancellation of removal. The INA defines aggravated felony to include "illicit trafficking in a controlled substance," which the INA, in turn, defines to include any felony offense—an offense punishable by more than one year's imprisonment—under the CSA. In determining whether a state offense qualifies as a felony under federal law, the Court applied a categorical approach, based not on the facts of the particular case, but on whether the state statute fits categorically within the generic federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony. In order for a state drug offense to satisfy the categorical approach, it must meet two conditions: "It must ‘necessarily' proscribe conduct that is an offense under the CSA, and the CSA must ‘necessarily' prescribe felony punishment for the conduct." The Court noted that the Georgia statute, which punishes possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, qualifies as an offense under the CSA. But because the Georgia statute could be violated by conduct involving only a small amount of marijuana and no remuneration, which the CSA treats as a misdemeanor offense, it does not "necessarily" prescribe felony punishment under the CSA and, therefore, is not an aggravated felony under the INA. The Court rejected the government's argument that any federal marijuana distribution conviction is "presumptively" a felony as inconsistent with the text of the CSA, which "creates no default punishment," and because its logic would "render even an undisputed misdemeanor an aggravated felony."  Likewise, the Court rejected the government's argument that noncitizens should be given an opportunity during immigration proceedings to demonstrate that their state drug conviction would qualify as a misdemeanor under the CSA as both inconsistent with the INA's text and the long-standing categorical approach.          

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined. Justices Thomas and Alito filed dissenting opinions.

Download Opinion of the Court

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