Recent Supreme Court Ruling Brings Fairness to Marijuana Conviction Cases

Federal immigration law prohibits the attorney general from letting a noncitizen stay in the United States for any reason if he is convicted of an aggravated felony. The immigration system has held that every conviction for marijuana distribution is such a felony.

In a victory for common sense and fairness, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, 7 to 2, that a conviction for marijuana distribution under state law should not in all cases result in automatic deportation.

Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican citizen who arrived legally in the United States in 1984 when he was 3 years old, was ordered deported by an immigration judge because he pleaded guilty in 2008 to possession of 1.3 grams of marijuana with intent to distribute under a Georgia law; that amount is enough to make about three marijuana cigarettes.

The trial court gave Mr. Moncrieffe, a first-time offender, five years of probation, after which the charge would be expunged.

The prosecution in the state case, however, did not prove that he had more than a small quantity of marijuana or that he sold any of it. Under Georgia law, “distribution” does not require receiving payment for the drug. That “ambiguity,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority, meant that the conviction “could correspond” to either a federal misdemeanor or felony.

But even with a conviction deemed a misdemeanor, Mr. Moncrieffe could still be deported. The difference is, with a minor offense he could ask the attorney general to use discretionary authority to let him stay. If the charge automatically corresponded with a felony, then that option is no longer available to Mr. Moncrieffe. It serves justice to let him make that request.

It is unfair to equate a minor state drug offense with major federal drug felonies and treat them as equivalent in deciding a defendant’s fate under immigration law. The sensible approach taken by the justices in this case should be extended to other cases to prevent minor state offenses from being unjustly used by the immigration system to remove individuals.There is greater good in giving people a chance to continue to contribute here and to stay with the family and friends they have ties to here before using an arbitrary legal mechanism to remove them from the U.S.