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. HolderAudio 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.
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.