Skip to content

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.

DOWNLOAD (PDF, 96KB)

The Board of Immigration Appeals held that unlawful sex with a minor aged 16 or 17 is an aggravated felony, even if the penal statute does not require lack of consent, if the offense requires as an element that the defendant be three or more years older than the victim.  It therefore held that a conviction for California Penal Code section 261.5(c) is an aggravated felony.  In reaching this conclusion (in a case arising in the Sixth Circuit), the Board stated its disagreement with the Ninth Circuit's en banc decision in Estrada-Espinoza v. Mukasey, 546 F.3d 1147 (9th Cir. 2008).

The Board stated its disagreement with Estrada-Espinoza, but its opinion failed to address the statutory construction argument that led the eleven circuit court judges to unanimously hold that California Penal Code § 261.5(c) is not an aggravated felony.  Getting eleven judges to agree on anything is difficult, but it is even harder when the case involves an immigrant charged with a sex offense (although it may have helped that the defendant and victim in Estrada-Espinoza were a boyfriend and girlfriend living together with the consent of both sets of parents).  The statutory construction argument that compelled the Ninth Circuit was that the aggravated felony of "sexual abuse of a minor," which is not defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act, should be drawn from the federal criminal definition of "sexual abuse of a minor" at 18 U.S.C. § 2243.  That federal criminal definition penalizes knowingly having sex with a minor under the age of 16 where there is a 4 year age differential.  It does not penalize consensual sex with a sixteen or seventeen-year-old, regardless of the age differential.  The Ninth Circuit found that since Congress has already supplied this definition for criminal purposes, it is the one that should be used for immigration purposes as well--unless the immigration statute specifies otherwise.  The Ninth Circuit also noted that sixteen is the age of consent in most states, as well as in the Model Penal Code (although some states, like California, set the age of consent at 18).  Thus, it would make no sense to impose the most severe immigration consequences for a conviction of conduct that would not even be criminal for federal purposes or in most states.

Although the Board did not address why it thought it had the authority to fashion a different definition of sexual abuse of a minor than the one enacted by Congress, it did cite social science research that shows an age differential of three or more years created a potentially coercive or exploitative situation that equals abuse.  It then provided examples of exploitative circumstances, such as where a high school teacher has a relationship with a student.  It also voiced its concern that a person may be convicted of Penal Code section 261.5(c) even where the victim is under sixteen and the age differential is substantially more than three years.  But Penal Code 261.5(c) is not the type of deal that a forty-year-old high school teacher would receive where he seduces a fourteen-year-old student.  California has a range of sex offenses, including 261.5(d), that are more likely in that type of egregious situation.

Whether a conviction is an aggravated felony should be determined based on the minimum conduct that has a realistic probability of being prosecuted, not on the worst possible scenario.  That is what the Supreme Court emphasized in Moncrieffe.  And for Penal Code section 261.5(c), there is a realistic probability of a prosecutor charging it in a far more benign situation than posited by the Board.  This is exemplified by Estrada-Espinoza itself, where a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old girlfriend lived with her twenty-year-old boyfriend in the home of his parents with the knowledge and consent of her own parents.  That is hardly a coercive or exploitative situation and it is one that would be entirely legal if they had gotten married (or had lived in another state).  That type of scenario hardly justifies the Board's disregard of Congress's statutory definition of sexual abuse of a minor.

DOWNLOAD (PDF, 190KB)

In this criminal prosecution for illegal entry after removal, the Ninth Circuit held that an Arizona conviction for attempted sexual contact with a minor under the age of 15, in violation of ARS 13-1405B, does not meet the federal generic definition of sexual abuse of a minor. It therefore remanded for re-sentencing. It also held, though, that the defendant could not establish prejudice resulted from a violation of his due process rights in the stipulated removal proceedings that preceded his removal because at the time the offense was considered an aggravated felony for sexual abuse of a minor in the Ninth Circuit. It just goes to show how quickly the law can change.

ARS 13-1405B has three elements: (1) a mens rea of “intentionally or knowingly”; (2) an act of “engaging in sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact”; and (3) a victim “who is under fifteen years of age.” The court found this did not meet either of the alternative federal generic definitions of sexual abuse of a minor. First, it is not sexual abuse of a minor as statutory rape because Arizona law, unlike federal law, does not require an age difference of 4 years. Second, ARS 13-1405B does not meet the alternative generic definition of sexual abuse of a minor, which requires that: (1) “the conduct proscribed . . . is sexual;” (2) “the statute protects a minor;” and (3) “the statute requires abuse.” Ninth Circuit precedent presumes that sexual contact with a minor under the age of 14 is inherently abusive, but ARS 13-1405B covers both 14 year-olds and those younger than 14. The panel declined to extend that inherent abusiveness presumption to 14 year-olds. Nor did it find any other element of abuse in this offense, since it involves consensual sex.

DOWNLOAD (PDF, 232KB)

In this Sentencing Guidelines case, the Ninth Circuit reviewed case law from the Delaware Supreme Court to determine whether the court had narrowed that state's unusually broad statutory definition of criminal attempt. It did so despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court in Descamps reserved the question of whether review of case law to determine the reach of a statute is permitted under the categorical analysis.

The panel's review of the case law of the Delaware Supreme Court revealed that the definition of attempt in that state really is as broad as the statute implies. Delaware law criminalizes attempt where the defendant has committed an act that leaves no reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s intention to commit the crime he or she is charged with attempting to commit. In other words, a person could be convicted of attempt where he or she has taken a step merely in preparation toward committing a crime. This is in contrast to most states and the generic federal definition, which require both intent and a substantial step toward completion. And a "substantial step" occurs under the federal generic definition when a defendant’s "actions 'unequivocally demonstrat[e] that the
crime will take place unless interrupted by independent circumstances.'"

Since the case law merely confirmed the statutory text, the panel did not need to use the case law to decide that the defendant's attempt conviction here was not a categorical match to the federal definition. Nonetheless, Judge Wallace's concurrence opposed even this on judicial restraint grounds. He wrote that the underlying crime attempted in this case (statutory rape) was not a match to the Sentencing Guidelines definition for a forcible sex offense. As it is not a match, an attempt to commit that crime is not a match to the federal definition either. He would have denied the case on that ground.

DOWNLOAD (PDF, 126KB)

510-835-1115