Monday, June 14, 2010

Second or subsequent simple possession offenses are not aggravated felonies under §1101(a)(43) when, as in this case, the state conviction is not based on the fact of a prior conviction

In Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (09-60), the Court reverses, in an opinion by Justice Stevens.  The vote is unanimous, though Justices Scalia and Thomas each file opinions concurring in the judgment only.

Issue: Whether a person convicted under state law for simple drug possession (a federal misdemeanor) has been “convicted” of an “aggravated felony” on the theory that he could have been prosecuted for recidivist simple possession (a federal felony), even though there was no charge or finding of a prior conviction in his prosecution for possession.

Petitioner, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, faced deportation after committing two misdemeanor drug offenses in Texas.For the first, possession of a small amount of marijuana, he received 20 days in jail. For the second, possession without a prescription of one antianxiety tablet, he received 10 days. Texas law, like federal law, authorized a sentencing enhancement if the State proved that petitioner had been previously convicted of a similar offense, but Texas did not seek such an enhancement here. After the second conviction, the Federal Government initiated removal proceedings. Petitioner conceded that he was removable, but claimed that he was eligible for discretionary cancellation of removal under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) because he had not been convicted of any “aggravated felony,” 8 U. S. C. §1229b(a)(3). Section 1101(a)(43)(B) defines that term to include, inter alia, “illicit trafficking in a controlled substance . . . including a drug trafficking crime” as defined in18 U. S. C. §924(c), which, in turn, defines a “drug trafficking crime” as a “felony punishable under,” inter alia, “the Controlled Substances Act (21 U. S. C. 801 et seq.).” A felony is a crime for which the“maximum term of imprisonment authorized” is “more than one year.” §3559(a). Simple possession offenses are ordinarily misdemeanors punishable with shorter sentences, but a conviction “after a prior conviction under this subchapter [or] the law of any State . . . has become final”—a “recidivist” simple possession offense—is “punishable” as a “felony” under §924(c)(2) and subject to a 2-year sentence. Only this “recidivist” simple possession category might be an“aggravated felony” under 8 U. S. C. §1101(a)(43). A prosecutor must charge the existence of the prior conviction. See 21 U. S. C. §851(a)(1). Notice and an opportunity to challenge its validity, §§851(b)–(c), are mandatory prerequisites to obtaining a punishment based on the fact of the prior conviction and necessary prerequisites to “authorize” a felony punishment, 18 U. S. C. §3559(a), for the simple possession offense at issue. Here, the Immigration Judge held that petitioner’s second simple possession conviction was an “aggravated felony” that made him ineligible for cancellation of removal. The Board of Immigration Appeals and Fifth Circuit affirmed. Relying on the holding in Lopez v. Gonzales, 549 U. S. 47, 56—that to be an “aggravated felony” for immigration law purposes, a state drug conviction must be punishable as a felony under federal law—the court used a “hypothetical approach,” concluding that because petitioner’s “conduct” could have been prosecuted as a recidivist simple possession under state law, it could have also been punished as a felony under federal law.

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