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The Ninth Circuit held in Avendano-Hernandez v. Lynch that the Board of Immigration Appeals acted within its proper discretion to hold that the petitioner's felony conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) was a particularly serious crime that disqualified her from receiving withholding of removal.

Ms. Avendano-Hernandez is a transgender woman who requested withholding of removal to Mexico because of repeated acts of rape and sexual assault she experienced there by police, the military, and her own family.  The immigration judge found her testimony credible, but denied her withholding of removal based on her conviction under California Vehicle Code section 23153(b) for driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or greater and causing bodily injury to another person.  She had crashed into another car and the other driver experienced neck and back pain, as well as minor pain to the arm and knee.  She received probation and a jail term of 364 days for this conviction.  She later received a 2 year sentence to imprisonment for a violation of her probation after she was deported and returned illegally without reporting to her probation officer.

The immigration judge and Board found that the conviction was a particularly serious crime that disqualified Ms. Avendano Hernandez from receiving withholding of removal to Mexico based on her experiences of rape and sexual assault there.  The Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction to review this discretionary decision is limited to determining whether the agency considered the facts and circumstances of the crime under the correct legal standard.  The Ninth Circuit found that the immigration judge did improperly consider the probation violation in assessing the seriousness of the underlying crime, but that the Board corrected the immigration judge's error on its de novo review.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Board applied the proper legal standard to the facts, so it upheld the decision.

The Ninth's decision then went on to find that Ms. Avendano Hernandez is entitled to deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture, a less durable form of protection from removal.

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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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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 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 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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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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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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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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In an unnecessary and disingenuous decision, the Ninth Circuit held in Torres-Valdivias v. Holder that the Board of Immigration Appeals correctly applied the heightened discretionary standard of Matter of Jean to deny adjustment of status to an immigrant convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery, even though the immigrant was not inadmissible for the conviction.

The Jean heightened discretionary standard requires a showing of extraordinary circumstances before granting a waiver of inadmissibility to an alien who has committed a violent or dangerous offense. Matter of Jean, 23 I&N Dec. 373 (A.G. 2002).  Jean was a refugee who had been convicted of manslaughter for shaking a baby to death.  When the former INS put her in removal proceedings, she applied for adjustment of status as a refugee.  She did not dispute that she was inadmissible to adjust status, but requested a discretionary 209(c) waiver to forgive her inadmissibility.  The immigration judge denied the waiver in the exercise of discretion.  The Board reversed and granted the waiver and adjusted her to permanent resident status.  The Attorney General at the time, John Ashcroft, disagreed with the Board and overruled it in a published opinion.  He established a new discretionary standard, which headnote 4 of the decision summarizes:

Aliens who have committed violent or dangerous crimes will not be granted a discretionary waiver to permit adjustment of status from refugee to lawful permanent resident pursuant to section 209(c) of the Act except in extraordinary circumstances, such as those involving national security or foreign policy considerations, or cases in which an alien clearly demonstrates that the denial of status adjustment would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship. Depending on the gravity of the alien’s underlying criminal offense, such a showing of exceptional and extremely unusual hardship might still be insufficient.

Matter of Jean, 23 I&N Dec. 373 (A.G. 2002).  Thus, if you have committed a violent or dangerous crime, the agency will not grant you a discretionary waiver to adjust from refugee status to permanent resident status without extraordinary circumstances (and even then may not).  A later decision, Matter of K-A-, 23 I&N Dec. 661 (BIA 2004), applied the same standard to asylees who apply to adjust from asylum status to permanent resident status.  No published Board decision, though, has ever applied the Jean standard to other types of applicants for adjustment of status, such as family-based or employment-based applicants.  Those applicants adjust pursuant to section 245 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, rather than section 209.

In an unpublished decision, however, the Board applied Jean to deny Torres-Valdivias's family-based application to adjust status.  It found that his misdemeanor conviction for sexual battery was a violent and dangerous crime that triggered the heightened discretionary standard, even though it did not make him inadmissible.  Torres-Valdivias was not inadmissible because his crime qualified for the petty offense exception--it was a misdemeanor with a sentence to imprisonment of not more than six months.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the Board's decision.

The Board's unprecedented borrowing of a standard is dubious enough in an unpublished decision, but applying the Jean standard to an immigrant who was not inadmissible for his crime was even more questionable.  Remember the language of Jean?  It explicitly applied only to a "discretionary waiver" for inadmissibility (and then only for a refugee).  Torres-Valdivias did not require a waiver, so Jean should not apply.

The heightened standard that does apply to family-based immigrants like Torres-Valdivias is nearly identical to Jean, but by its own terms only applies where the immigrant is inadmissible for a crime and thus requires a waiver of inadmissibility under 212(h).  See 8 C.F.R. 212.7(d).  The regulation that contains this standard provides,

The Attorney General, in general, will not favorably exercise discretion under section 212(h)(2) of the Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(h)(2)) to consent to an application or reapplication for a visa, or admission to the United States, or adjustment of status, with respect to immigrant aliens who are inadmissible under section 212(a)(2) of the Act in cases involving violent or dangerous crimes, except in extraordinary circumstances, such as those involving national security or foreign policy considerations, or cases in which an alien clearly demonstrates that the denial of the application for adjustment of status or an immigrant visa or admission as an immigrant would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship. Moreover, depending on the gravity of the alien's underlying criminal offense, a showing of extraordinary circumstances might still be insufficient to warrant a favorable exercise of discretion under section 212(h)(2) of the Act.

8 C.F.R. 212.7(d).  Thus, only immigrants who require a 212(h) waiver for criminal inadmissibility are subject to the heightened standard under 212.7(d).  And note that part 212.7(d) was issued under the same Attorney General--John Ashcroft--that decided Matter of Jean, and it was issued after the decision in Jean.  See 67 Fed. Reg. 45402, 45404 (Jul. 9, 2002) (proposed rule).  Indeed, the agency stated in the Federal Register that 212.7(d) was intended to codify Jean.  Id.

The Ninth Circuit blithely ignored all of this and affirmed the Board's unpublished decision.  In doing so, it effectively rendered 212.7(d) moot in the Ninth Circuit.  Under Torres-Valdivias, an immigrant may be denied adjustment of status under the heightened standard even where he is not inadmissible, while 212.7(d) only applies if the immigrant is inadmissible for a crime.  If Attorney General Ashcroft intended the interpretation of Jean adopted by the Ninth Circuit, why did he later promulgate a more narrow regulation at 212.7(d)?  The answer is that he did not intend the Ninth Circuit's interpretation.

At the beginning of this article, I made the inflammatory comment that the panel decision in Torres-Valdivias is not only wrong, but disingenuous, so I'll tell you why.  After the initial decision in the case, published on September 5, 2014, the American Immigration Council and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center filed amicus briefs in support of rehearing, and they were both represented by very able attorneys.  I am certain those attorneys raised the arguments summarized above, and perhaps even better ones.  Yet the amended opinion issued nine months later still asserted that Jean and K-A- compelled the decision, when in fact they don't and the implication of 212.7(d) is that the decision is entirely wrong.  I expect the panel ignored the arguments because of the bad facts in this case (the victim of Torres-Valdivias's sexual battery was his step-sister, who was four years younger than him).

I would say the opinion is results-oriented, except that this bad law was unnecessary.  There already was and still is a discretionary standard of long pedigree that applies to adjustment applications by all immigrants, admissible and inadmissible: the Board's published decision in Matter of Arai, 13 I&N Dec. 494 (BIA 1970).  Arai held, "Where adverse factors are present in a given application for adjustment of status under section 245, Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, it may be necessary for the applicant to offset these by a showing of unusual or even outstanding equities."  In other words, the favorable discretionary factors must outweigh the negative factors.  This standard is more flexible and carries less of a presumption toward denial, but it is more than adequate to support the denial of adjustment where appropriate.  In other words, the Board could have denied Torres-Valdivias adjustment under either standard, so the use of the wrong one may have caused no harm here.

Although the panel's decision may not have prejudiced Torres-Valdivias, the problem is that it turned the Board's minor error into a rule of law that will be applied to other cases throughout the Ninth Circuit.  And it is hard to see why it did so.  The prudent course would have been to remand the case to the Board for a reconciliation of JeanArai, and 212.7(d).  That is the Board's job, not the Ninth Circuit's.

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Rejecting the BIA's approach in E.E. Hernandez, the Ninth Circuit held that a gang enhancement under California Penal Code section 186.22(b)(1) does not transform a conviction into a crime involving moral turpitude if the offense was not one already.

Here, Hernandez-Gonzalez was convicted of possessing a billy club, which generally would not involve moral turpitude because the offense does not involve threatening or hurting anyone, but rather mere possession.  The Board found, in an unpublished decision, that the gang enhancement made Hernandez-Gonzalez's offense a crime involving moral turpitude.  This is consistent with the Board's later published decision in E.E. Hernandez. E.E. Hernandez reasoned that the specific intent to promote street gang activity , which is required for a PC 186.22 enhancement, is always morally turpitudinous because street gang activity is morally turpitudinous.

The Ninth Circuit, however, found that California law permits a gang enhancement where the only street gang activity being promoted is the underlying crime itself, which need not involve moral turpitude.  The Ninth Circuit pointed to California court decisions applying the gang enhancement to weapons offenses where the weapons were discovered during probation or other searches, such as during traffic stops, that did not involve any actual use of the weapon.  The Ninth Circuit held that weapons possession in such circumstances is not a morally turpitudinous.  It is criminal, but it does not involve the type of evil intent required for a crime involving moral turpitude.

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