Under the terms of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the federal government may deport any noncitizen convicted of committing certain crimes, including such felonies as illicit drug trafficking. In a 7-2 decision handed down today, the Supreme Court held that a state conviction for the possession of a small amount of marijuana with intent to distribute without remuneration did not rise to that level.
The case of Moncrieffe v. Holder arose in 2007 when a legal immigrant from Jamaica named Adrian Moncrieffe was arrested at a traffic stop in Georgia after the police discovered 1.3 grams of marijuana in his car. He later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and was required to complete five years of probation. According to federal immigration officials, this crime amounted to an "aggravated felony" punishable by mandatory deportation.
Writing for a majority of the Court that included both liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, and conservatives Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejected the federal government's approach. "This is the third time in seven years that we have considered whether the Government has properly characterized a low-level drug offense as 'illicit trafficking in a controlled substance,' and thus an 'aggravated felony,'" Sotomayor wrote. "Once again we hold that the Government's approach defies 'the "commonsense conception"' of these terms."