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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lopez v. Gonzales: State Drug Crimes as Aggravated Felonies

Lopez v. Gonzales, 126 S. Ct. 2557 (2006). Lopez was convicted in South Dakota for helping someone else possess cocaine, which under South Dakota state law was the same as possessing cocaine, a felony under S.D. law, and sentenced to a five-year term of incarceration. He was released after 15 months’ imprisonment. Immigration authorities began removal proceedings against him and the I.J., after a remand from the BIA, held that the S.D. conviction was an aggravated felony. The Supreme Court reversed; Justice Souter’s opinion for the 8-1 majority held that conduct made a felony under state law but a misdemeanor under the Controlled Substances Act is NOT a "felony punishable under the Controlled Substance Act." 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(2). The Court first noted that adopting the government’s position that "drug trafficking" can encompass conduct punishable only as a misdemeanor under the CSA runs counter to the common meaning of the applicable statutory language. It noted that "an offense that necessarily counts as ‘illicit trafficking’ under the INA is a ‘drug trafficking crime’ under §924(c), that is, a ‘felony punishable under the [CSA],’ §924(c)(2)." Because Congress provided no more detailed definition, the Court held that "using the phrase to cover even a misdemeanor punishable under the Act would be so much trickery, violating the cardinal rule that statutory language must be read in context." The common definition of drug trafficking requires some act beyond mere possession. The Court also noted that Congress would not have intended that State law supplant its own definition of drug trafficking, and in turn aggravated felony, especially given the consequences flowing from those designations. "The Government’s reading would render the law of alien removal, see 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(a)(3), and the law of sentencing for illegal reentry into the country, see USSG §2L1.2, dependant on varying state criminal classifications even when Congress has apparently pegged the immigration statutes to the Classification itself chose." Justice Thomas was alone in dissent.