Law
3:52 pm
Tue April 23, 2013

Justices Say U.S. Improperly Deported Man Over Marijuana

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 6:04 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a longtime legal resident of the United States was improperly deported for possession of a small amount of marijuana. By a 7-2 vote, the justices said that it defies common sense to treat an offense like this as an "aggravated felony" justifying mandatory deportation.

Adrian Moncrieffe immigrated with his parents to the United States from Jamaica in 1984. He was 3 years old at the time. He and his family were all legal residents. He grew up, became a home health care worker, got married, and started a family in Georgia. In 2007, during a routine traffic stop, police found a small amount of marijuana in the car, about enough to make two or three cigarettes.

Moncrieffe, with no prior record, was charged in state court with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a crime that under Georgia law allows for a wide range of sentences. His lawyer did not advise him that if he pled guilty he could be deported. The U.S. Supreme Court has since required that lawyers give such information to defendants.

Ignorant of the immigration consequences, Moncrieffe accepted a plea deal under which he would avoid prison, and his conviction would be expunged after five years of satisfactory probation.

The federal government, however, jailed and then deported him to Jamaica, contending that under federal law, there was no discretion on the matter because Moncrieffe had been convicted of an aggravated felony.

Not so, said the court on Tuesday, ruling that Moncrieffe's Georgia conviction was not in fact an aggravated felony, meaning that the government had discretion to forgo deportation. Writing for the seven-member majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is a federal crime, but she said that where the amount is small and there is no sale, the crime does not qualify as an aggravated felony, or even a felony. The government's attempt to characterize such an offense as an aggravated felony, she said, "defies the commonsense conception of these terms."

Moncrieffe, the father of five American children, was close to tears upon learning of the court's decision. "It's just a good day ... for me and my family," he said.

The decision means that Moncrieffe can now ask immigration authorities to allow him to return to the U.S., and to his wife and five American children. Most experts say he has an excellent chance of succeeding, given the fact that he has no real ties to Jamaica, that his family is here, and that his conviction by now has actually been expunged from the record under Georgia law.

Dissenting from the decision were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The Supreme Court bit off a piece of the immigration puzzle today. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that a longtime legal resident of the U.S. was improperly deported for possession of a small amount of marijuana. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Adrian Moncrieffe immigrated to the United States with his parents from Jamaica in 1984. He was 3 years old then. He and his family were all legal residents. He grew up, became a home health care worker, married and had a family. In 2007, during a routine traffic stop, police found a small amount of marijuana in the car, about enough to make two or three cigarettes.

Moncrieffe, who had no prior record, was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. That's a generic felony under Georgia law and allows for a wide range of sentences. His lawyer did not advise him that if he pled guilty, he could be deported, a requirement that the U.S. Supreme Court has since imposed. Ignorant of the immigration consequences, Moncrieffe accepted a plea deal under which he would avoid prison and have his conviction expunged after five years' probation.

The federal government, however, first put him in immigration detention and then deported him to Jamaica, contending that under federal law, there was no discretion on the matter since Moncrieffe had been convicted of an aggravated felony. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Moncrieffe's Georgia conviction was not, in fact, an aggravated felony under federal law.

Writing for the seven-member majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that where the amount is small and there is no sale, the crime does not qualify as an aggravated felony. Rather, it's a low-level offense that's not a felony at all under federal law. The government's attempt to characterize such an offense as an aggravated felony, she said, defies the commonsense conception of these terms.

Moncrieffe, the father of five American children, was close to tears upon learning of the court decision today.

ADRIAN MONCRIEFFE: It's just a good day for my family, for me and my family.

TOTENBERG: The decision means he can now ask the immigration service to allow him to return to the U.S. and to his wife and children. Most experts say he has an excellent chance of succeeding, given the fact that he has no real ties to Jamaica, that his family is here, and that his conviction by now has actually been expunged from the record under Georgia law. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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