Disagreeing with the Ninth Circuit's decision in Malta-Espinoza v. Gonzales, 478 F.3d 1080 (9th 2007), the BIA held in this Fourth Circuit case that a conviction for harassing conduct in violation of California Penal Code § 646.9 is categorically a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) (thus making it an aggravated felony with a sentence to 365 days or more). The Board therefore reaffirmed its decision in Matter of Malta, 23 I&N Dec. 656
(BIA 2004) in jurisdictions other than the Ninth Circuit. The decision is weak, however, because it fails to meaningfully address the primary rationale for Malta-Espinoza.
The primary rationale for finding that PC § 646.9 is not categorically a crime of violence is that it can be committed by long-distance harassment. Malta-Espinoza cited published California cases where the convictions were for sending letters and pictures through the mail. However, a crime of violence under § 16(b) requires "a substantial risk that [violent] physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense." How could violent physical force be used in the course of mailing a letter?
The Board's cursory answer is that sometimes a violent physical encounter follows long-distance harassment. It cites statistics to back up this assertion. I have no doubt that sometimes violence follows long-distance harassment, but that is beside the point. Under well-established California law, the offense would be complete upon the mailing of the harassing letters (even if the sender was incarcerated and even if the recipient is out of the country). That is an offense, and the sender could be immediately prosecuted for it. And, of course, there is no way that sending a letter in-and-of itself carries a substantial risk that violent physical force could be used in committing THAT offense. PC § 646.9 thus does not categorically involve a substantial risk that violent physical force will be used.
If the sender of a harassing letter later shows up at the victim's doorstep to engage in more harassment (as in the example cited by the BIA), then that is a separate offense that likely would involve a substantial risk of the use of violent physical force to commit the offense. But that does not categorically establish that all PC § 646.9 convictions involve conduct that carries a substantial risk of violent physical force. Some may, some clearly would not, which is why the Board should have resorted to the modified categorical approach to determine if the offense underlying this particular conviction involved a substantial risk.
The Fourth Circuit may have a chance to review the Board's decision. Hopefully, it will engage in a more careful analysis. The consequences of the decision are severe. Since it determined the conviction was an aggravated felony, the Board found the respondent ineligible for relief from removal. He thus will lose his green card and be removed and probably will never be able to return to the U.S. All without review of the record of conviction to determine the actual conduct that he pled guilty to.
Finally, note that this decision, and the Malta decision that preceded it, concern only "harassing" conduct in violation of PC § 646.9. The statute also penalizes "following," which neither decision addressed. Given the rationale of this decision, however, it is hard to see how following--even from a great distance--would not be found to be a crime of violence.
Read the decision at http://www.justice.gov/eoir/vll/intdec/vol25/3738.pdf.