April 23, 2013 United States Supreme Court opinion

Moncrieffe v Holder

Moncrieffe, a legal resident of the United States, pled guilty to drug trafficking charges based on possession 1.3 grams of marijuana. The government sought to deport him arguing the trafficking conviction was an aggravated felony. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed. Resolving a circuit split, the Court, 7-2, reversed. Applying the categorical approach to the generic crime of drug trafficking, the majority noted that the federal drug trafficking statute treats possession of small amounts of marijuana without remuneration as a misdemeanor. As the statute Moncrieffe violated does not necessarily require either large amounts of drugs or remuneration, it is not necessarily a felony under federal law. Thus, the majority held that Moncrieffe’s conviction was not an aggravated felony. It further held that in analyzing whether a drug offense is an aggravated felony, both elements and sentencing factors must be included and there is no presumption that a drug trafficking conviction is a felony. The majority noted that the federal drug trafficking statute contained no presumption and adopting one would require actual misdemeanors to be treated as felonies for immigration purposes which is at best anomalous and in any event violates the language of the statute. The majority rejected the government’s remedy of allowing Moncrieffe to produce evidence at his deportation hearing that he meets the misdemeanor standard as unauthorized by the statute, inconsistent with focus on conviction instead of facts of the crime and would bog down the process while introducing complexity given the reality that states do not conduct their plea hearings with federal immigration standards in mind. The majority finally dismissed government fears that this decision will allow many drug traffickers to avoid deportation noting that the decision only allows Moncrieffe and similarly situated residents to seek discretionary relief from removal. Justice Thomas field a dissent arguing that Moncrieffe’s conviction is plainly a felony under the immigration statute and the majority’s decision creates additional anomalies which can only be rectified by abandoning the approach allowing state felonies to be characterized as federal misdemeanors. Justice Alito filed a dissent arguing  that Moncrieffe’s conviction was plainly a felony for immigration purposes, that the majority did not apply the categorical approach as that approach leads to the conclusion that Moncrieffe’s conviction was for a felony, that the majority effectively hands drug traffickers in half the states a way not be deported and, in any event, Moncrieffe was allowed to prove that his conduct fit the small amount exception and failed to present any evidence that his possession was without remuneration. Thus, Justice Alito would affirm.

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