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U.S. v. Jorge Aguilera-Rios

In this illegal reentry decision, the Ninth Circuit held that firearms convictions under state statues that encompass both "antique" and non-antique firearms do not satisfy the federal ground of deportability for conviction of a firearms offense. The defendant here had been removed for conviction under such a statute, so the court found the removal order invalid and reversed the conviction.

The federal definition referenced by the firearms ground of deportability explicitly excludes antique firearms, while former section 12021(c)(1) of the California Penal Code, does not. In other words, there is no complete match between the two definitions and a conviction for the California offense should not categorically trigger deportability. The Ninth Circuit previously had resisted this logic, primarily because the antique firearms exception is an affirmative defense in a federal prosecution. In Moncrieffe, the Supreme Court found, albeit in dicta, that whether it is an affirmative defense or not does not matter. What matters is the congruence between the definitions. An offense meets a federal definition only if all of the conduct penalized by it meets the definition, including the least culpable conduct that there is a "realistic probability" of the state prosecuting. Aguilar-Rios cited cases showing California regularly prosecuted offenses involving antique firearms under PC 12021(c)(1), so the least culpable conduct for a conviction clearly did not meet the federal firearms definition.

Moreover, as in the marijuana statute at issue in Moncrieffe, former California PC 12021(c)(1) was not divisible into alternative, separately defined offenses involving antique or not-antique firearms. Thus, the court held it could not examine the record of conviction to try to determine whether Aguilera-Rios's offense actually involved an antique firearm.

Although this decision concerned a firearms statute that existed before the Deadly Weapons Recodification Act of 2010 went into effect on January 1, 2012, it should apply equally to offenses under the reorganized statute that do not distinguish between antique and non-antique firearms. This would include current sections 25400(a), 27500, 29800, and 33215 of the Penal code, according to the ILRC.

Finally, I should point out that the panel's decision confusingly states Aguilera-Rios's "conviction is not a categorical match for the federal aggravated felony" definition. This apparently is an error, since the recited facts indicate Aguilera-Rios was only found deportable for conviction of a firearms offense, 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(C), not a firearms aggravated felony. This error is not significant, though, since both reference the same federal definition of a firearm.