Court Holds Marijuana Possession Does Not Lead to Automatic Deportation

By N. Ryan LaBar | Criminal Defense Attorney
Published: 2013

On April 23, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in case that settled a split among lower courts about whether marijuana distribution convictions are "aggravated felonies" that lead to automatic deportation under federal law.

Conviction Under FL State Drug Laws

The case arose after police stopped a man for a traffic violation in 2008 and discovered 1.3 grams of marijuana in his car, which the Court estimated was enough for about two or three joints. The man was originally from Jamaica, but had been living in the U.S. legally since he immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of three years old. The man pled guilty under state law to charges of possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute, even though, as the Court noted, there was no evidence that he intended to do anything but share the marijuana socially. There was no proof offered that he intended to undertake a financial transaction.

Federal officials instituted deportation proceedings because they treated the conviction as an "aggravated felony" which leads to automatic deportation. Federal law classifies drug distribution as a felony, with a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Not even the Attorney General, who otherwise has the power to revoke deportation orders, may revoke a deportation order for a person convicted of an aggravated felony.

The man contested the deportation, lost the challenge at an administrative hearing and was sent to Jamaica. The Fifth Circuit upheld the deportation because prosecutors need not prove the amount of marijuana involved in order to convict someone of distribution charges under federal law. The Fifth Circuit said that the fact that the man only had a small amount of marijuana was immaterial.

Avoiding Automatic Deportation

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court because the state law at issue did not cover the same criminal conduct that federal law does. As such, conviction under the state law cannot have the same consequences as the federal law with respect to deportation. Additionally, there is a provision in the law stating that if the amount of marijuana is small and no money changed hands, then marijuana distribution is a misdemeanor.

The Court noted that its opinion did not rule out deportation for such convictions, it merely exempted it from the list of offenses automatically leading to deportation.

The Court rejected the Attorney General's argument that ruling in the man's favor would result in major drug traffickers challenging their deportation orders, bogging down the immigration court system. The Court noted that trafficking laws lead to automatic deportation, and prosecutors can charge major drug dealers under those laws rather than distribution laws.

Seek Legal Counsel

A conviction for drug offense charges can have serious, life-long consequences. Such convictions can make it almost impossible for a person to find employment or housing, as well as lead to other difficulties. If you are facing criminal charges related to drugs contact us today. We have a history of successfully handling drug cases. Call us today at at 1-866-680-4LAW or fill out our online form located at the top of the page and we will contact you shortly


Orlando Criminal Defense Attorney N. Ryan LaBar






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