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Adrian Moncrieffe v. Holder

From the perspective of attorneys defending immigrants against removal for convictions, it is hard to imagine a better outcome than the Supreme Court's 7-2 ruling in this case. It holds that a conviction satisfies a generic definition of an offense under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) only if the minimum conduct for the conviction, not applying legal imagination, satisfies the definition. This rule is faithful to past decisions of the Supreme Court, but it undermines many of the previous Ninth Circuit and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decisions examined on this blog.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put Moncrieffe, a long-term lawful permanent resident, in removal proceedings and alleged he was an aggravated felon drug trafficker based on a Georgia conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The conviction resulted from a traffic stop where the police found 1.3 grams of marijuana (enough for 2-3 cigarettes).

Moncrieffe had argued DHS could not prove he was an aggravated felon because the Georgia offense encompasses distribution of a small amount of marijuana for no remuneration (i.e., social sharing) and that is not a felony under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The lower courts rejected that argument because in a federal prosecution the default sentencing range is as a felony and the defendant would need to establish the small amount and lack of remuneration to qualify for a misdemeanor sentence.

The Supreme Court rejected the hypothetical federal prosecution approach because the INA requires that a conviction be equivalent to a CSA felony to meet the drug trafficking aggravated felony definition and a conviction does not meet that test unless it excludes the possibility of being equivalent to a CSA misdemeanor.

In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court forcefully reaffirmed language from its earlier decision in Johnson v. United States: “we must presume that the conviction ‘rested upon [nothing] more than the least of th[e] acts’ criminalized, and then determine whether even those acts are encompassed by the generic federal offense.” 559 U.S. 133, 137 (2010) (alterations in original). In other words, if a statute penalizes some conduct that does not meet the INA definition, and there is a realistic probability that the state would prosecute that conduct, then the conviction cannot satisfy the INA definition, unless the record narrows the conviction to the generic INA definition (the modified categorical analysis).

The real action in the lower courts has been attempts to expand the reach of the modified categorical analysis, but Moncrieffe sent a shot over the bow indicating the modified categorical approach is permissible only when the criminal statute lists different crimes separately. This contrasts with the Ninth Circuit's en banc decision in Aguila Montes de Oca. But just what is a divisible statute that lists different crimes separately? The Supreme Court's forthcoming decision in Descamps should answer that.

Moncrieffe also undermines the Ninth's en banc decision in Young, which held that a respondent applying for discretionary relief in removal proceedings could not meet the burden of proving eligibility if the record of conviction is inconclusive as to whether the offense matches the generic INA definition for a disqualifying conviction. Moncrieffe indicates that the categorical approach applies to the question of eligibility for relief too and that a conviction is presumptively for the least serious conduct that has a realistic probability of being prosecuted.

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