The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a longtime legal resident of the United States was improperly deported for possession of a small amount of marijuana. By a 7-to-2 vote, the justices said that it defies common sense to treat an offense like this as an “aggravated felony” justifying mandatory deportation.
Adrian Moncrieffe immigrated to the United States with his parents from Jamaica in 1984. He was 3 years old at the time. He and his family were all legal residents. He grew up, became a home health care worker, got married, and started a family in Georgia. In 2007, during a routine traffic stop, police found a small amount of marijuana in the car, about enough to make two or three cigarettes.
Moncrieffe, with no prior record, was charged in state court with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a crime that under Georgia law allows for a wide range of sentences. His lawyer did not advise him that if he pled guilty he could be deported. The U.S. Supreme Court has since required that lawyers give such information to defendants.
Ignorant of the immigration consequences, Moncrieffe accepted a plea deal under which he would avoid prison and his conviction would be expunged after five years of satisfactory probation.
The federal government, however, jailed and then deported him to Jamaica, contending that under federal law, there was no discretion on the matter because Moncrieffe had been convicted of an aggravated felony.
Not so, said the court on Tuesday, ruling that Moncrieffe’s Georgia conviction was not in fact an aggravated felony, meaning that the government had discretion to forgo deportation. Writing for the seven-member majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is a federal crime, but she said that where the amount is small and there is no sale, the crime does not qualify as an aggravated felony, or even a felony. The government’s attempt to characterize such an offense as an aggravated felony, she said, “defies the commonsense conception of these terms.”
Moncrieffe, the father of five American children, was close to tears upon learning of the court’s decision. “It’s just a good day … for me and my family,” he said.
The decision means that Moncrieffe can now ask immigration authorities to allow him to return to the U.S. and to his wife and five American children. Most experts say he has an excellent chance of succeeding, given the fact that he has no real ties to Jamaica, that his family is here, and that his conviction by now has actually been expunged from the record under Georgia law.
Dissenting from the decision were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.