In a 7-2 vote on Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that deportation is not mandatory if a legal immigrant is convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana.
The ruling was in response to Moncrieffe v. Holder. Immigration officials automatically deported Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican citizen who has lived in the United States since he was three years old, after he was convicted under Georgia law for possession and intent to distribute 1.3 grams of marijuana.
“Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the majority that a conviction for marijuana possession does not rise to the level of an aggravated felony if it is a small amount and the defendant was not being paid for it,” reported Reuters.
Moncrieffe could still face deportation, but Tuesday’s ruling means that he and others like him can contest the decision in further immigration proceedings.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases that questioned a harsh federal law requiring the deportation of non-citizens who are convicted of certain crimes, including minor drug violations.
Media reports on those whose lives hang in the balance over these decisions have included one horror story after another about people who in many cases were legal residents of the United States for decades, but were forced to endure brutal treatment and threats of deportation, simply for minor marijuana convictions.
Among the most egregious:
- Jerry Lemaine, a legal permanent resident of New York who was instructed by a lawyer to plead guilty after a police officer found a marijuana cigarette in his pocket one night in 2007. That guilty plea led to a terrible chain reaction, as reported by The New York Times: “Immigration authorities flew him in shackles to Texas, where he spent three years behind bars, including 10 months in solitary confinement, as he fought deportation to Haiti, the country he had left at age 3,” The Times reported yesterday.
- Jose Padilla, a native of Honduras who followed his lawyer’s advice to plead guilty to transporting marijuana. Federal agents told Padilla, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Kentucky for many years, that he faced automatic deportation as soon as he pled guilty.
In the case of Padilla, the court ruled 7-2 today that lawyers must inform their clients about the consequences any case would have on their immigration status.
No opinion was given on the justness of punishing someone for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol.