Mellouli v. Lynch

PETITIONER:Moones Mellouli
RESPONDENT:Loretta Lynch, Attorney General
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 13-1034
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 575 US (2015)
GRANTED: Jun 30, 2014
ARGUED: Jan 14, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 01, 2015

Jon Laramore – for the petitioner
Rachel P. Kovner – on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case

In 2010, Moones Mellouli, a citizen of Tunisia residing in the United States, was arrested for driving under the influence. While Mellouli was detained, police discovered four tablets of Adderall in his sock. Although initially charged with trafficking a controlled substance in a jail, Mellouli ultimately pled guilty to the lesser charge of possessing drug paraphernalia in violation of a Kansas statute. In 2012, the government attempted to deport Mellouli pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which states that aliens convicted under any law “relating to a controlled substance” as defined by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), are deportable.

In immigration court, Mellouli argued that, since his 2010 conviction did not specify a particular controlled substance and the Kansas statute includes some substances not included in the CSA, his conviction did not necessarily “relate to a controlled substance” for the purposes of the INA. The judge rejected the argument and held that Mellouli was deportable because the particular controlled substance involved in his conviction was irrelevant. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed and held that possession of drug paraphernalia involves drug trade in general, which is “related to a controlled substance,” and therefore Mellouli’s conviction met the criteria required by the INA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit denied Mellouli’s petition for review and his petition for rehearing en banc. The appellate court held that the BIA’s conclusion was reasonable in light of the INA’s use of the general term “relating to” instead of a more specific term like “involving.”


To trigger deportability under the Immigration and Nationality Act, must the government prove the connection between a drug paraphernalia conviction and a substance listed in the Controlled Substances Act?

Media for Mellouli v. Lynch

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 14, 2015 in Mellouli v. Lynch

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 01, 2015 in Mellouli v. Lynch

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in case 13-1034 Mellouli v. Lynch.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

In this case we answer the question how should immigration judges apply a deportation provision defined with reference to Federal drug laws to an alien convicted of drug paraphernalia possession, an offense under State Law but not Federal Law.

Petitioner Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty to possessing drug paraphernalia in violation of Kansas law.

The paraphernalia Mellouli was charged with possessing: one sock in which he had placed four orange tablets.

The criminal charge and plea agreement cannot identify the substance concealed in the sock but Mellouli had acknowledged prior to the charge and plea that the tablets were Adderall.

Mellouli received the suspended sentence and a used probation.

After he successfully completed probation an immigration Judge ordered him deported based on the Kansas drug paraphernalia possession conviction.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed the order and the Eighth Circuit denied Mellouli’s petition for review.

We now reverse the Eighth Circuit’s judgment.

Mellouli was deported under a provision of Federal Immigration Law that authorizes deportation of an alien convicted of a violation of any law or regulation of a state, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance as defined in Section 802 of Title 21.

Section 802 limits the term controlled substance to a drug or other substance includied in one of five federal schedules to determine

whether an alien is deportable under this provision we apply an approach called categorical, under that approach we looked at the statutory definition of the alien’s offense of conviction not to the particulars of the alien’s conduct.

The drug paraphernalia law under which Mellouli was convicted by definition does relate to a controlled substance.

Kansas statute makes it unlawful to use or possess any drug paraphernalia to store or conceal a controlled substance.

But does the Kansas law relate to a controlled substance as defined in 21 USC Section 802.

Our answer is no.

The word “controlled substance” in the Kansas statute refers to substances controlled under Kansas’ own schedule.

It is immaterial under the State Law whether a substance is defined in Section 802.

At the time of Mellouli’s conviction Kansas’ schedule included at least nine substances not included in the Federal list.

Nothing in the record of Mellouli’s conviction shows that a drug on an 802 schedule figured as an element of the crime for which he was charged and convicted.

The government contends that aliens who commit drug crimes and states whose schedules substantially overlap the Federal schedules are deportable.

States statute that criminalize hundreds of federally controlled drugs and a handful of similar substances on state but not federal list, the government urges, all laws relating to federally controlled substances.

But the BIA has their own deportation statute to require a direct link between an alien’s crime of conviction and a particular federally controlled drug.

That link is missing here.

Construction of the statute must be faithful to its text which limits the meaning of controlled substance for deportation purposes to the substances controlled under Section 802.

Decretive deportation we therefore hold the government must connect an element of the aliens conviction to a drug defined in Section 802.

The government did not do so here, accordingly Mellouli’s deportation order cannot stand.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Alito joins.