01 June 2015

Law in Plain English: Mellouili v. Holder

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogMellouli v. Lynch

Argument: Jan 14 2015 (Aud.)

Background: Moones Mellouli, a citizen of Tunisia and a lawful permanent resident of the United States, pleaded guilty in July 2010 to violating a Kansas misdemeanor drug paraphernalia statute. Mellouli had been stopped for DUI and police found four Aderrall pills in his sock; the sock was the "drug paraphernalia." The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) found that he was removable because his conviction was a conviction “relating to a controlled substance” within the meaning of 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i). Mellouli argued that he was not removable because the state court record of conviction did not identify the controlled substance underlying his state paraphernalia conviction, and therefore the government failed to prove that the conviction related to a federal controlled substance, as § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) requires. The Eighth Circuit denied his petition, finding that there was a nearly complete overlap between the definition of controlled substance in 21 U.S.C. § 802 and in the statutes of States such as Kansas that adopted the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. It was therefore reasonable for the BIA to conclude that any drug paraphernalia conviction in these States was, categorically, a violation of a law “relating to a controlled substance” within the meaning of 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i).

Issue: The question before the Court is whether, to trigger deportability under 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), which provides that a noncitizen may be removed if he has been convicted of violating “any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21) . . . ,” the government must prove the connection between a drug paraphernalia conviction and a substance listed in section 802 of the Controlled Substances Act.

Holding: In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Mellouli’s Kansas conviction for concealing unnamed pills in his sock did not trigger removal under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). The categorical approach historically taken in determining whether a state conviction renders an alien removable looks to the statutory definition of the offense of conviction, not to the particulars of the alien’s conduct. The state conviction triggers removal only if, by definition, the underlying crime falls within a category of removable offenses defined by federal law. The BIA has long applied the categorical approach to assess whether a state drug conviction triggers removal under successive versions of what is now §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). The BIA announced and applied a different approach that, in this case, finds no home in §1227(a)(2)(B)(i)’s text and leads to consequences Congress could not have intended. 
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