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The Supreme Court reached the sensible decision in this case that a noncitizen is deportable for a drug paraphernalia conviction only if the government proves the conviction relates to a substance appearing on the federal controlled substances schedules.  This decision provides a valuable plea option for some minor drug cases, at least in states that control substances that do not appear on the federal schedules.

Here, Mellouli was arrested for DUI and at booking his sock was found to contain 4 pills.  At the time, he allegedly admitted they were Adderall and that he did not have a prescription.  In court, Mellouli pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia (the sock), but the drug that the paraphernalia charge related to was not specified in the charging document or his plea.  The identity of the substance thus was not established by the conviction. This is significant because Kansas law at the time controlled some substances that do not appear in the federal schedules, so simply having a paraphernalia conviction in Kansas did not establish a conviction relating to a federal controlled substance.

Relying on Matter of Martinez Espinoza, 25 I&N Dec. 118 (2009), the immigration judge and Board of Immigration Appeals held that the government did not need to prove that Mellouli's paraphernalia conviction related to Adderall or any other specified controlled substance. It was enough that the sock related to "the drug trade in general."

The Supreme Court disagreed and once again faithfully applied the categorical approach, as it has in a string of recent decisions.  The categorical approach requires that the elements of a conviction necessarily match the elements of a federal generic definition.  If there is no match, then there is no penalty--in this case, no deportability.  The text of the deportability statute here requires that a conviction "relat[e] to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21)."  If the conviction does not necessarily relate to a controlled substance as defined in section 802 of Title 21 (the federal Controlled Substances Act) because state law covers one or more substances not covered by federal law, then the noncitizen is not necessarily deportable.


The Supreme Court held a conviction for simple battery against a domestic victim triggers the prohibition against firearms possession at 8 USC 922(g)(9), a federal crime. Immigration advocates had feared that a holding along these lines would be used to justify expanding the domestic violence ground of deportability to also include simple battery against a domestic victim--making deportable, for example, an immigrant convicted of the misdemeanor offense of pushing his wife.

Fortunately, however, the Court explicitly stated at footnote 4 that nothing in its decision should cast doubt on precedent that holds simple battery against a domestic victim does not implicate the deportability ground. The court recognized that the deportability ground incorporates the generally-applicable "crime of violence" definition at 18 USC 16, which the Court has repeatedly held applies only to the active use of violent force capable of causing injury.

The criminal statute in Castleman did not include that reference to 18 USC 16, so the Court applied a much more expansive definition of domestic violence, over Justice Scalia's objections. It cited arguments and statistics by advocacy groups and the Department of Justice to explain why a simple battery that would not be considered "violent" in the ordinary sense is "violent" when it occurs in the domestic context, since it often occurs as part of a pattern of intimidation and control.


The Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit's en banc decision on the categorical analysis of criminal convictions in United States v. Aguila-Montes de Oca. The categorical analysis refers to the process of comparing a prior state or federal conviction to a generic federal definition of a crime to determine whether the prior conviction triggers certain consequences. The Supreme Court held that a court may look to the record of conviction (charging document, plea transcript, jury findings, etc.) only if the defendant was convicted of a “divisible” statute and resort to the record is necessary to determine which of separate alternative elements that the conviction rested on. In contrast, if a statute is not divisible—meaning it contains a single set of elements that is broader than the generic offense—the categorical inquiry is resolved in the defendant’s favor, even if he actually committed the generic offense or admitting to doing so.

My own example based on the holding is as follows: if a statute penalizes possession of cocaine, heroin, or marijuana (and if the identity of the drug is relevant to the federal generic definition), then the reviewing court can look to specified documents from the record to determine if the conviction was for cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. On the other hand, if the statute penalizes possession of unspecified drug paraphernalia, then the reviewing court may not be look to the record to determine the drug that the paraphernalia related to, since the identity of the drug is not an element of the offense.

In Aguila-Montes de Oca, the Ninth Circuit had held to the contrary that a reviewing court may look beyond the elements of a conviction to assess the purported facts of a case based on the prosecution's theory of the crime. For example, pursuant to that opinion a reviewing court could look to other evidence, such as an arrest report, that the paraphernalia had residue of heroin. The Supreme Court not only rejected that approach, but disparaged it. It held that "accepting the Ninth Circuit’s contrary reasoning would altogether collapse the distinction between a categorical and a fact-specific approach." And there are several parts of the Supreme Court's opinion that are more caustic than that, making for a good read.


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.



For an excellent practice advisory, visit:

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In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found the Board reasonably interpreted INA 240A(a) cancellation of removal to require that the respondent personally satisfy the requirements of 7 years of lawful residence and 5 years of permanent resident status. Since this was a reasonable interpretation of a statute that the Board is charged with administering, the Court overruled the Ninth Circuit's contrary interpretation--which imputed a parent's period of lawful residence or permanent resident status to his or her child. Cuevas-Gaspar v. Gonzales, 430 F. 3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2005) and Mercado-Zazueta v. Holder, 580 F. 3d 1102 (9th Cir. 2009) thus are no longer good law.


The Supreme Court held that a permanent resident who pled guilty to a crime involving moral turpitude before the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996 still benefits from the Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Fleuti, which provides he would not be considered to be "seeking entry" after a innocent, casual, and brief trip abroad. If the resident is not seeking entry, then he is not subject to numerous additional criminal and noncriminal grounds for removal.

IIRAIRA created a new rule that returning residents are considered to be seeking admission upon return from abroad if they have committed an offense that makes them inadmissible. The Supreme Court held that rule is not retroactive because Congress did not explicitly make it retroactive and it creates a new disability (the noncitizen's inability in this case to travel to Greece briefly to visit his ill parents without being subject to removal upon return). It is thus another application of Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U. S. 244, 263 (1994).

Notably, the Supreme Court held that explicit reliance on prior law by the individual is not required to avoid retroactive application. The majority of the Court also rejected the dissent's argument that the noncitizen's own travel after IIRAIRA is what triggered his removal proceedings and he could have avoided those problems by not traveling.

Vartelas is not a big change for those of us in the Ninth Circuit or Fourth Circuit, since they already had found that the new definition of when a permanent resident would be seeking admission was not retroactive for noncitizens who pled guilty before IIRAIRA. Camins v. Gonzales, 500 F. 3d 872 (CA9 2007); Olatunji v. Ashcroft, 387 F. 3d 383 (CA4 2004).


The Supreme Court held in this case that the aggravated felony definition at 8 U. S. C. § 1101(a)(43)(M)(i) (an offense that "involves fraud or deceit in which the loss to the victim or victims exceeds $10,000") encompasses tax offenses. It reached this conclusion despite a separate provision of the statute that designates only certain tax offenses as aggravated felonies: § 1101(a)(43)(M)(ii) (an offense that "is described in section 7201 of title 26 (relating to tax evasion) in which the revenue loss to the Government exceeds $10,000").

The Court's primary justification for why its interpretation did not render clause (ii) superfluous was a hypothetical that even the government conceded had never arisen in any tax prosecution: evasion of tax payment without fraud or deceit. In other words, a taxpayer who files a truthful return but puts the money beyond the IRS's reach. Since the tax offense listed in clause (ii) covers this scenario (as well as evasion that involves fraud or deceit), the Court concluded that clause (ii) covers some offenses not covered by the fraud or deceit offense in clause (i).

Justice Ginsberg's dissent points out how ridiculous it is to attribute this intention to Congress when the government has never prosecuted anyone for filing a truthful return and then evading payment. Instead, she attributes to Congress the sensible intent of only making the most serious tax offense, 26 U.S.C. § 7201, an aggravated felony. And in all of the known prosecutions, that tax offense has involved fraud or deceit. Thus, it makes no sense for Congress to create two provisions side-by-side and have one of them be essentially meaningless. Instead, clause (ii), which specifically addresses the most serious tax offense that causes loss of revenue to the government of more than $10,000, should be interpreted to exclude tax offenses from the fraud and deceit offenses covered by clause (ii). But only two justices agreed with Justice Ginsberg's analysis, so that is not the law.

Read the decision at

In a Christmas gift to a couple of my clients, the Supreme Court rejected the Board of Immigration Appeal's statutory comparability test for use of former section 212(c). Since 212(c) refers to inadmissibility, the test provided that the waiver is available for a ground of deportability only if the statutory text is substantially similar to the text of a ground of inadmissibility. The Supreme Court, in a rare unanimous decision, convincingly demonstrated that the Board's test was untethered to the plain language of 212(c) and that it was arbitrary and capricious. The comparability test is arbitrary and capricious because determining whether a ground of deportability is too broad or too narrow has nothing to do with the immigrant's fitness to remain in the U.S. In other words, the inclusion of too many or too few other crimes in a ground of deportability is irrelevant. The Court therefore held the Board's rule did not survive even the deferential review given to it under Administrative Procedure Act.

The Court noted the Board was free to develop a new rule, but the reasoning behind the Court's decision suggests a rule that focuses on the immigrant's actual conviction. If it would make an immigrant inadmissible, then it should to be waivable under 212(c) even for a charge of deportability. The Court did not actually hold that, but indicated that such a rule would not be irrational. Hopefully, the Board will get the hint.

Read the opinion at

The Supreme Court granted cert to review the Ninth Circuit's line of precedent that imputes the residence of parents to their minor children for purposes of the 7 years required for LPR cancellation of removal.  The two cases are consolidated.

The dockets are available at: