Oct. 10, 2012 -- Should a lawful immigrant be deported over a $30 bag of weed?
A case being heard by the Supreme Court this morning could change the way immigration officials handle deportations of immigrants convicted of relatively minor offenses.
Adrian Moncrieffe came to the U.S. from Jamaica at age 3, nearly three decades ago, when he immigrated with his family. He is a legal permanent resident with two U.S.-born children.
In 2007, he was pulled over by a Georgia police officer and found with 1.3 grams of marijuana -- one twentieth of an ounce.
The Georgia statute for marijuana possession, however, doesn't differentiate between his crime and more serious offenses.
Immigration Impact reports:
"Despite the small amount of marijuana involved, Moncrieffe was charged under Georgia law with possession with intent to distribute -- an offense written so broadly as to apply both to 'people who freely share small quantities with others' and to those who distribute up to ten pounds of illicit narcotics."
Moncrieffe v. Holder, the case being heard today, will not only have implications for immigrants convicted of small drug crimes, but also for other lesser criminal offenders whose crimes fall under broad state statutes. "The technical part of the case is whose burden of proof is it?" Hing said. "Is it the alien's burden to prove it wasn't a felony? Or is it the government's burden?"
Analysis by SCOTUSblog said that the government acknowledges the discrepancy in court opinions on the issue: "Even the government, while opposing Supreme Court review, said there was a disagreement, but argued that it was not well-developed and might go away."
State criminal statutes are often written in a sweeping fashion, which can pose a problem for immigrants who have relatively minor brushes with the law and then have to face U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.
"What some people would consider to be a relatively minor offense that does not result in a prison sentence can be classified under federal law as a felony that can lead to deportation," Hing said. "When there's language that suggests that it could be more serious and it's not serious, ICE will not give you the benefit of the doubt."
The impact of the ruling, which will likely arrive in the spring, will be relatively small in comparison with the vastness of the immigration system. However, it could affect the deportation proceedings of hundreds of lawful immigrants each year, according to Hing.
"That to me is the story," Hing said. "That the federal government can deport a lawful immigrant if he makes this mistake."
An earlier version of this story reported that Moncrieffe's arrest occured in 2008. It occured in 2007.