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Matter of Roberto Cuellar-Gomez

The Board held that a conviction by a municipal court in Wichita, Kansas, for a violation of a municipal controlled substance ordinance is a conviction for immigration purposes because the proceedings were "genuine criminal proceedings." The respondent was fined and jailed for possession of marijuana in a municipal court. He later was convicted in a state court of a felony for possession of marijuana with a prior municipal court conviction. ICE then initiated removal proceedings, alleging removability for a controlled substance offense and for an aggravated felony. It alleged his possession with a prior conviction was an aggravated felony.

The respondent raised several arguments to attack the validity of the underlying municipal court judgment. The Board rejected the respondent's first argument that the municipal court proceedings were not genuine because there was no absolute right to counsel. Witchita apparently provides a right to appointed counsel only in municipal court cases where there is a possibility of incarceration, but not otherwise. The Board found this was consistent with the constitutional right to counsel for indigent persons, so it did not agree that the proceedings were not genuine. (It is unclear whether he actually had counsel or not, but he would appear to have the right to it because he received a sentence to incarceration for the municipal conviction.)

The respondent further argued that his lack of counsel (or advisement by the judge) deprived him of information about the potentially serious immigration consequences of his municipal court plea. The Board treated that as a collateral attack against the judgment, rather than as an argument that the proceedings were not genuine. As such the Board held that the respondent needed to make the argument to the criminal court, not to the Board. (Again, this argument is curious since he apparently did have a right to counsel.)

The respondent also argued that convictions in the Witchita municipal courts were not genuine because there is no right to jury trial on the charges. However, there is a right to trial de novo before a jury in a state district court if the municipal court finds the defendant guilty. The Board found this right to request a new trial if the defendant is dissatisfied is enough.

Additionally, unlike the Oregon procedures in Matter of Eslamizar, 23 I&N Dec. 684, 688 (BIA 2004), Witchita municipal proceedings require the prosecutor to prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The proceedings thus were genuine by that measure as well.

The impact of this case goes far beyond Witchita convictions, though. The reasoning behind it strongly indicates that California infractions will be considered convictions for immigration purposes as well. There had been some hope that Eslamizar signaled an intent to not treat infractions as convictions, particularly since in California there is no right to appointed counsel for them. Cuellar-Gomez dispels that hope. Further, California requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for infraction convictions, so that argument from Eslamizar does not apply either.

The respondent in Cuellar-Gomez also argued that his municipal conviction could not support ICE's charge of removability under section 237(a)(2)(B)(i) for being "convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State . . . relating to a controlled substance." He was convicted under a municipal ordinance, not any law or regulation of a State. The Board rejected that argument because a municipality is a creature of the state, so its laws are laws of the state.

Finally, the Board held that Cuellar-Gomez's conviction was an aggravated felony because it corresponds to a federal felony under the Controlled Substances Act for recidivist possession, 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). As required for a federal recidivism felony, the prior conviction was final and respondent received advance notice of the enhancement for having a prior conviction.