Moncrieffe v. Holder

PETITIONER:Adrian Moncrieffe
RESPONDENT:Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General
LOCATION: New Orleans Immigration Court

DOCKET NO.: 11-702
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 569 US (2013)
GRANTED: Apr 02, 2012
ARGUED: Oct 10, 2012
DECIDED: Apr 23, 2013

Pratik A. Shah – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Thomas C. Goldstein – for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Adrian Moncrieffe, a native of Jamaica, was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident in 1984. In 2008, police arrested Moncrieffe while he was in possession of 1.3 grams of marijuana. Moncrieffe pleaded guilty in a Georgia court to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

In 2010, the department of Homeland Security started removal proceedings against Moncrieffe for being an alien convicted of an aggravated felony and as an alien convicted of a controlled substance offense. Moncrieffe did not dispute his conviction but argued that that the conviction was not an “aggravated felony” and did not make him removable.

An immigration judge ruled that Moncrieffe was removable, holding that the petitioner’s conviction was an aggravated felony because Moncrieffe was convicted under a state law which was similar to a federal law which made possession of marijuana with intent to distribute a felony. Moncrieffe appealed and argued that possession of such a small amount of marijuana would not be a felony under federal law, but rather a misdemeanor. The Board of Immigration Appeals rejected Moncrieffe’s argument and dismissed the appeal. The United State Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the deportation order.


Does conviction under a provision of state law for distribution of a small mount of marijuana constitute an aggravated felony, regardless of whether the conduct would constitute a federal felony?

Media for Moncrieffe v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 10, 2012 in Moncrieffe v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 23, 2013 in Moncrieffe v. Holder

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in case 11-702, Moncrieffe versus Holder.

Sonia Sotomayor:

This case concerns the immigration consequences of a conviction for a marijuana distribution offense.

Petitioner Adrian Moncrieffe is a Jamaican citizen who came to the United States legally at age three.

Over 20 years later, during a traffic stop, police found about two or three cigarettes’ worth of marijuana in his car.

The State of Georgia charged him with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

He plead guilty under a Georgia program for first-time drug offenders which allowed him to avoid prison time.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, however, a non-citizen who is convicted of almost any drug offense may be deported.

And so the federal government sought to deport Moncrieffe because of his conviction.

Ordinarily, a non-citizen may ask the Attorney General for discretionary relief for removal.

But if a non-citizen has been convicted of a subset of drug offenses called “Illicit Drug Trafficking Offenses,” then the Attorney General is prohibited from granting discretionary relief no matter how compelling the non-citizen’s case is.

That is because illicit drug trafficking is considered an aggravated felony under the immigration laws, and aggravated felonies carry a specially harsh consequences.

An illicit drug trafficking offense is defined as any felony punishable under the Federal Drug Laws.

So the question before us is whether Moncrieffe’s Georgia conviction for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is equivalent to a felony under the felony drug laws.

If it is equivalent, then Moncrieffe is subject to mandatory deportation as an aggravated felon.

If it is not equivalent, then Moncrieffe is still deportable as a drug offender, but he may ask the Attorney General for discretionary relief.

Our cases have held that we determine whether a state offense is equivalent to a federal offense by using an analysis called “The Categorical Approach.”

This is a somewhat complicated doctrine.

The essence of it is that we do not examine the facts underlying the non-citizen’s particular conviction to determine whether those facts could have given rise to a federal conviction.

Instead, we consider whether any conviction of the state crime would necessarily establish the requirements of the possibly equivalent federal offense.

If you think this is difficult, so does everybody else.

If so, then we say that the state offense categorically matches the federal offense.

This is an approached that has long been used in our immigration law.

It promotes fairness by ensuring that all non-citizens who are convicted under the same statute are treated the same and it avoids the need to re-examine the underlying facts of old state convictions years later in immigration court.

For Moncrieffe’s Georgia conviction to count as an aggravated felony, it would need to categorically match a federal drug offense that is punishable as a felony.

There is no question that possession of marijuana would intent to distribute is a federal drug offense, but whether it is punishable as a felony under federal law depends upon the amount of marijuana and whether there was remuneration.

The mere social sharing of a small amount of marijuana is generally a misdemeanor under federal law, but if the offense involves a sale or a larger amount of marijuana, it is a felony.

Here, the Georgia statute says nothing about remuneration — boy, that word gets me — or the quantity of marijuana.

It punishes all instances of possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute.

Including those had involved just a small share — social sharing of a small amount of marijuana.

The Georgia statute is thus broader than the federal aggravated felony because it comprises both marijuana distribution offenses that are punishable as felonies and those that are punishable as misdemeanors.

Sonia Sotomayor:

As a result, a conviction under the Georgia statute does not categorically fit within the federal definition.

And so, Moncrieffe’s conviction is not an aggravated felony.

The government has argued that the misdemeanor provision for sharing a small amount of marijuana should not be relevant under the categorical approach because in a federal drug prosecution, it would be a mere sentencing exception.

Instead, the government suggests that convictions like Moncrieffe’s should be presumed to be an aggravated felony, but that non-citizen should then be allowed to show in immigration court that their convictions involved only a small amount of marijuana pursuit for no money.

For reasons set forth fully in our opinion, we reject that position because it is unsupported by the text of the immigration law and inconsistent with our established categorical approach.

Again, our inquiry must focus on what a non-citizen’s conviction standing alone established, not what acts he committed on a particular occasion.

And Moncrieffe’s conviction does not establish an offense that necessarily qualifies for felony treatment under federal law.

The government also fears that this approach will allow those who actually committed to serious drug trafficking offenses to avoid being labeled as aggravated felonies.

But remember that escaping aggravated felony treatment only means escaping mandatory deportation, not deportation altogether.

A serious drug trafficker whose state conviction is not categorically an aggravated felony may apply to the Attorney General for relief, but the Attorney General may deny that relief in his discretion because of its non-citizen’s serious — more serious conduct.

So the effect of this decision on a government’s ability to police our boarders is limited.

The judgment of the Sixth — Fifth Circuit is reversed and the case is remanded.

Justices Thomas and Alito have each filed dissenting opinions.