In California, defense lawyers have a legal and ethical duty to advise clients on their criminal cases’ immigration consequences. This duty is extremely important because a criminal conviction can result in deportation, even for an immigrant who has lived and worked legally in the United States for decades. In light of the Trump administration’s emphasis on the removal of “criminal aliens,” we are seeing an increase in litigation of criminal removal cases, and gaining clarity in this complex area of the law.
As a criminal defense lawyer working in Los Angeles, I represent many clients whose immigration status is threatened by their criminal charges. This is why I am passionate about following developments in criminal-removal cases, and am particularly excited about a U.S. Supreme Court case decided this week called Sessions v. Dimaya. The Dimaya case involved a constitutional challenge to a criminal-removal provision in the immigration laws, which historically have been almost wholly immune from judicial review.
The defendant, James Dimaya, challenged the constitutionality of a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allowing for deportation for aggravated felonies involving “crimes of violence.” An immigrant convicted of an “aggravated felony” under 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43) is subject to mandatory removal and is ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. The definition of “aggravated felony” incorporates by reference 18 U.S.C. §16(b). Section 16(b) defines a “crime of violence” to encompass “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” What constitutes a felony involving a “crime of violence” is a murky legal issue that courts have interpreted differently. The result is an unpredictable and counterintuitive body of law.
For example, Mr. Dimaya,had two residential burglary convictions, neither of which involved violence. He was charged under California statute, which defines residential burglary so broadly that it could cover dishonest door-to-door salespeople.
Is a burglary a “crime of violence” when it need not entail any actual violence? Immigration judges held that it was, and that Dimaya’s convictions fell within the “residual clause” of the definition of a violent crime. This allowed Mr. Dimaya’s deportation to move forward. Mr. Dimaya appealed, challenging the constitutionality of this “residual clause.” He argued that the provision is too vague to comport with the Due Process Clause, which guarantees that ordinary people have fair notice of the conduct a law prohibits. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the residual clause violated due process.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th Circuit’s ruling that Section 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague. The Court noted that to determine whether a person’s conduct falls within the ambit of Section 16(b), “courts use a distinctive form of what we have called the categorical approach.” Rather than assessing whether the particular facts of someone’s conduct pose the substantial risk required under the statute, courts consider the overall nature of the offense, and ask “whether ‘the ordinary case’ of an offense poses the requisite risk.” Defining the “ordinary case” under the “crime of violence” provision poses vagueness and due process problems, including unpredictability and arbitrariness. Mr. Dimaya’s case is illustrative. It defies logic that Mr. Dimaya could be deported for committing a so-called “crime of violence” when the crimes he was convicted of involved no violence.
The Court’s finding that this residual clause deprives immigrants of fair notice as to what qualifies as a “crime of violence” will create more uniform, predicable law. In reaching its decision, the Court pointed to judicial disagreement over what crimes count: Some federal appeals courts have found that car burglary, statutory rape, evading arrest, residential trespass, unauthorized use of a vehicle, stalking, and firearms possessions are crimes of violence. Other appeals courts have reached opposite conclusions. This made it difficult to provide concrete legal advice to clients on how certain outcomes to their criminal cases could affect their immigration status.
Sessions v. Dimaya is beneficial to non-United States citizens who are facing felony charges in the United States for non-violent acts. Such individuals should seek representation from a criminal lawyer who is well-versed in the recent changes to criminal removal case law.