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ImmigrantPleas Blog

Immigration attorney Scott Mossman maintains this blog to discuss recent court decisions that relate to the immigration consequences of criminal convictions and crime. The focus is on decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. Occasionally it addresses decisions by other courts of appeal and California state law developments.

Roberto Lopez Valencia

California theft is not aggravated felony theft per the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Roberto Lopez Valencia. This is so because California’s definition of theft at PC 484 encompasses more than the federal generic definition of theft and it is not divisible into separate crimes that do meet the federal definition.

Unlike the federal definition, California PC 484 applies to more than taking property without consent and with the intent to deprive the owner of the rights of ownership. PC 484 also covers theft of labor, false credit reporting, and theft by false pretenses. The Ninth Circuit has long recognized this, so it has permitted review of documents from the conviction record to determine if there is a match to the federal definition.

Lopez Valencia held that this was no longer permissible under the Supreme Court’s decision in Descamps and the Ninth Circuit’s subsequent decision in Rendon. Descamps held that a court may only review documents from the record of conviction to determine whether a conviction meets a federal definition if a statute of conviction contains multiple alternative elements, such that the statute really lists multiple different crimes. A statute is not divisible if it encompasses multiple alternative means of committing the same crime. How to distinguish between elements and means? Rendon held that elements require juror agreement, while means don’t.

Under California law larceny, embezzlement, theft by false pretenses, false credit reporting, and theft of labor are all means of committing the unitary crime of theft. They are not separate alternative crimes. How do we know? Because the California Supreme Court has held that a prosecutor need not convincing a jury to agree on which type of theft a defendant committed in order to secure a conviction. The California law was written that way to make it easier for prosecutors to convict thieves. However, it also means that California theft can never meet the federal aggravated felony definition.

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John Wesley Liwanag Coquico v. Lynch

Pointing a laser pointer at a cop is a crime, but it is not a base, vile, or depraved crime according to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Coquico v. Lynch.

ICE put John Coquico in removal proceedings, alleging that he was deportable for conviction of two crimes involving moral turpitude after admission: a 2007 conviction for robbery and a 2006 misdemeanor conviction for “unlawful laser activity” in violation of California Penal Code (PC) 417.26. He argued the PC 417.26 conviction did not involve moral turpitude.

PC 417.26 provides,

(a) Any person who aims or points a laser scope as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 417.25, or a laser pointer, as defined in subdivision (c) of that section, at a peace officer with the specific intent to cause the officer apprehension or fear of bodily harm and who knows or reasonably should know that the person at whom he or she is aiming or pointing is a peace officer, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a term not exceeding six months.

The immigration judge found this crime to involve moral turpitude because she found it involved “possession of weapons which are insidious instruments normally used for criminal purposes.” The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed that the crime involved moral turpitude for the slightly different reason of “the crime is committed against a peace officer and the nature of the crime involves using a device which gives the appearance or facade of the use of a deadly weapon.”

Really? Apparently the immigration judge and Board are unfamiliar with what exactly a laser pointer is. Helpfully, the California statute defines it as: “any hand held laser beam device or demonstration laser product.” You know, like what they use to point on the projection screen at a dreary continuing legal education seminar. Or like the one that naughty kid was using to distract the speakers at the last PTA meeting I went to. Annoying yes, an insidious weapon normally used for criminal purposes no.

Fortunately, the Ninth Circuit also went with annoying rather than deadly. It noted that the statute does not have any requirement that the laser pointer appear deadly to a reasonable person. Nor does the statute require that the peace officer on the receiving end be in reasonable fear of bodily harm (much less experience any harm). In other words, all that PC 417.26 requires is that some knucklehead intend to cause the officer fear of harm, not that the officer have a reasonable basis to fear harm. The Ninth Circuit found that to be the critical point.

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Jose Reyes Ruiz-Vidal v. Lynch

Jose Reyes Ruiz-Vidal was not quite as lucky in his second published decision from the Ninth Circuit as he was in his first, Ruiz-Vidal v. Gonzales, 473 F.3d 1072 (9th Cir. 2007). In the second decision, the Ninth Circuit held that he was deportable for a conviction for California Health & Safety Code 11377(a). The case is significant because the court held that a charge originally filed against a defendant narrows a plea to a lesser included offense under the modified categorical approach.

In 2009, Jose Reyes Ruiz Vidal was charged in a felony information with sale of a controlled substance in violation of California Health & Safety Code (HS) 11379(a), “to wit: methamphetamine.” He later pleaded no contest to HS 11377(a), simple possession of a controlled substance. The plea transcript and minute order for the hearing indicated that the plea to 11377(a) was as a lesser included offense to the 11379(a) charge, which had referenced methamphetamine.

The Ninth Circuit previously held in Coronado v. Holder, 759 F.3d 977 (9th Cir. 2014) that HS 11377(a) is not categorically a controlled substance offense, since it covers at least one or two substances not covered by the federal Controlled Substances Act. However, it found the offense was divisible. That means a court can review certain record of conviction documents to determine if the conviction actually involved a federal controlled substance.

Methamphetamine is definitely a federal controlled substance, so the question in Ruiz-Vidal was whether the specification of meth in the sale charge meant that the lesser included plea to simple possession was also for meth. Judge Kozinski said yes, finding that the specification of a particular substance in the original charge meant that a lesser included plea must be to that same substance. That is common sense, although Judge Reinhardt’s dissent demonstrates why it is not legally correct. Regardless, it is now the law of the Ninth Circuit, since the court denied en banc rehearing and the Supreme Court denied the cert petition. Criminal defense counsel beware.

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Maria Arce Fuentes v. Lynch

Maria Arce Fuentes v. Lynch held that the “circumstance-specific” approach applies to the money laundering aggravated felony definition at 8 USC 1101(a)(43)(D). That definition requires the amount of funds laundered to exceed $10,000, and the circumstance-specific approach allows a court to determine the amount of funds involved by looking to evidence outside the elements of the conviction. The Ninth Circuit held that evidence could include a pre-sentence report (PSR), but not alleged overt acts that were not necessary for the offense of conviction.

In this case, Maria Arce Fuentes was allegedly involved in a conspiracy in Puerto Rico to launder drug trafficking proceeds. She and other codefendants were indicted for conspiracy to commit money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) and 74 substantive counts of money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a). Ms. Arce Fuentes pleaded guilty to conspiracy and the substantive counts were dismissed. The PSR indicated that the prosecution and defense agreed that an eight-level increase to the offense level was appropriate because Ms. Arce Fuentes laundered more than $70,000.

The Ninth Circuit first confirmed that the circumstance-specific approach does apply when determining the amount of funds laundered for the aggravated felony definition at 8 USC 1101(a)(43)(D). The panel found this result compelled by the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the similar aggravated felony definition at 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(M)(i), which concerns a fraud or deceit offense where the loss to the victim exceeded $10,000. Thus, the agency did not err by looking to evidence beyond the elements of Ms. Arce Fuentes’s conviction.

The Ninth Circuit held, however, that this did not extend to consideration of dismissed counts that were not incorporated into the offense of conviction. The immigration judge had found the conviction involved the laundering of funds in excess of $10,000 based on the indictment and the judgment. The conspiracy count that Ms. Arce Fuente was convicted of did not itself allege a loss amount in excess of $10,000, but cited other dismissed counts involving amounts exceeding $10,000. The conspiracy count cited these dismissed counts as overt acts, but this was apparently due to an error in the indictment. In Whitfield v. United States, 543 U.S. 209, 214 (2005), the Supreme Court held that money laundering conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h) does not require an overt act. So, alleging the overt acts was not necessary to the indictment. Since the acts were not necessary for the conviction, the Ninth held that a guilty plea to the conspiracy count did not incorporate them and they could not prove the amount of the funds involved.

Despite this error, the Ninth Circuit upheld the aggravated felony finding because the Board of Immigration Appeals also relied on the PSR. The PSR indicated the parties agreed that the amount of funds exceeded $70,000. No evidence contradicted the PSR, so the Ninth Circuit held it provided clear and convincing evidence to sustain the aggravated felony charge.

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U.S. v. Francisco Salgado Martinez

In U.S. v. Francisco Salgado Martinez, a prosecution for illegal reentry after removal, the Ninth Circuit held that child molestation in the third degree under section 9A.44.089 of the Washington Revised Code is not an aggravated felony for sexual abuse of a minor. It held the offense failed both of the alternative tests for that definition.

Under the first test from the court’s en banc decision in Estrada-Espinoza, a crime is an aggravated felony if it requires “(1) a mens rea level of knowingly; (2) a sexual act; (3) with a minor between the ages of 12 and 16; and (4) an age difference of at least four years between the defendant and the minor.” The court held that section 9A.44.089 failed this test because it does not necessarily involve a sexual act, since the Washington courts have found the crime occurred where a defendant rubbed and fondled the victim’s thigh through clothing.

Under the second test from Medina-Villa, a crime is an aggravated felony if “(1) the conduct proscribed is sexual; (2) the statute protects a minor; and (3) the statute requires abuse….” The court held Washington 3rd degree child molestation does not necessarily involve “physical or psychological harm in light of the age of the victim in question.” Although the court’s reasoning on this point was not crystal clear, it appears to rest on the fact that the statute could apply to consensual contact with a teen between the ages of 14 and 16.

Since section 9A.44.089 of the Washington Revised Statutes lacks these elements entirely, the Ninth Circuit held that no conviction for that offense can meet the federal generic definition of aggravated felony sexual abuse of a minor. It therefore held the defendant here was not removable when removed and thus could not be prosecuted for illegal reentry after removal.

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Etumai Felix Mtoched v. Lynch

In this case arising from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), the Ninth Circuit held that Etumai Felix Mtoched’s 1994 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon in violation of 6 N. Mar. I. Code § 1204(a) was a deportable crime involving moral turpitude. It further found that ground of deportability could retroactively apply to Mr. Mtoched even though he was convicted of the offense before the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) took effect in CNMI. Finally, it held that Mr. Mtoched could not apply for a 212(h) waiver of inadmissibility because he was already in the U.S. and was not eligible to adjust status.

Concerning the first question of whether Mr. Mtoched’s assault with a deadly weapon conviction was a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), the panel found the statute of conviction was “divisible into three distinct subparts, all involving bodily injury to another person with a dangerous weapon: (1) threaten to cause, (2) attempt to cause, or (3) purposely cause.” In reaching this conclusion, however, the panel appears to have assumed divisibility from the text of the statute. Its opinion failed to address prior precedent that holds an offense is divisible only if a jury must unanimously agree on which of multiple alternative elements a defendant committed. See Rendon v. Holder. The Mtoched panel simply ignored that precedent even though the Ninth Circuit had declined to rehear Rendon en banc more than a month earlier.

The panel also held that the CIMT ground of deportability could be applied to Mr. Mtoched even though he was admitted to CNMI, the crime was committed, and he was convicted before the U.S. immigration laws applied to CNMI. As the government agreed, Congress was not explicit in applying the INA to CNMI retroactively. The court therefore considered whether applying the change to Mr. Mtoched “would impair rights [he] possessed when he acted, increase [his] liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed.” It determined that Mr. Mtoched’s conviction made him deportable under the law that existed in CNMI prior to the INA, and the change also did not make him ineligible for any form of discretionary relief that he was previously eligible for. Both before and after the change, his only hope to remain in CNMI was an exercise of prosecutorial discretion. The fact that the CNMI Attorney General did not move to deport him and the federal government did does not make the change in law retroactive.

At the end of the decision, the panel held, as the Board of Immigration Appeals did, that Tmoched was not eligible for 212(h) because he was present in the U.S. and was not eligible to adjust status. It added a cryptic note saying that he was not eligible to adjust status because he was present in the U.S. as “a citizen of Palau who may enter the United States as a non-immigrant under the section 141 of the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of Palau.” It is true that persons admitted without a visa, which is apparently how Mr. Tmoched was admitted, are ineligible to adjust–unless they are eligible for adjustment of status as an immediate relative (spouse or minor child under 21 of U.S. citizen, or parent of U.S. citizen 21 years of age or older). Thus, the real problem appears to be that Mr. Tmoched did not have one of those relationships.

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Matters of Martin Chairez-Castrejon and Vera Sama

When is a penal statute “divisible” and thus susceptible to review of an individual’s record of conviction for purposes of determining deportability? The Supreme Court held in Descamps v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2276 (2013) that a statute is divisible if it contains an element that may be satisfied by any one of multiple alternatives enumerated in the statute, at least one of which meets a federal generic definition and at least one of which does not. That decision, however, does not answer whether to be divisible a judge or jury must unanimously agree on which of the alternatives was committed in a specific case. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch took jurisdiction over cases of Martin Chairez-Castrejon and Vera Sama to weigh in on that question.

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George Camacho Garcia v. Lynch

The Ninth Circuit held that George Camacho Garcia did not validly waive his right to appeal because the immigration judge misadvised him as to whether his California theft conviction was an aggravated felony. Mr. Camacho Garcia was convicted of grand theft in violation of California Penal Code (PC) section 487(a) and received a sentence to 16 months of imprisonment.

The court held Mr. Camacho Garcia’s theft conviction was not categorically an aggravated felony. California’s definition of theft at PC 484 defines the offense to encompass theft of property, theft of labor, and “consensual” taking by false pretenses (i.e., fraud). The federal generic definition of theft, however, is limited to “[1] a taking of property or an exercise of control over property [2] without consent [3] with the criminal intent to deprive the owner of rights and benefits of ownership, even if such deprivation is less than total or permanent.” The federal definition therefore does not exactly correspond to the California definition, since it does not include taking by false pretenses or taking of labor. Thus, a California theft conviction with a sentence to imprisonment of one year or more is not categorically an aggravated felony.

The Camacho Garcia panel then applied the modified categorical approach to determine whether the conviction documents narrowed the conviction to the federal definition. It found that the charging document did specify theft of property (as opposed to labor), so the conviction matched that element of the federal definition. The conviction documents, however, did not specify whether the theft was by unlawful taking (without consent) or false pretenses (with consent). The conviction therefore did not match the federal definition.

Note, the issue of divisibility was not raised in the briefs on this case. The court accordingly did not address whether a California theft conviction is even susceptible to the modified categorical analysis of whether the conviction meets the federal definition.

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