“Sharing a small amount of marijuana for no remuneration, let alone possession with intent to do so, does not fit easily into the everyday understanding of trafficking, which ordinarily means some sort of commercial dealing,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for a seven-justice majority, partly quoting from an earlier case.
The case arose from a traffic stop in Georgia in 2007 during which Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican citizen, was found with 1.3 grams of marijuana — “the equivalent,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “of about two or three marijuana cigarettes.”
Mr. Moncrieffe pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute, a felony under Georgia law, and was sentenced to five years of probation. Saying the conviction established that Mr. Moncrieffe had committed an “aggravated felony,” federal authorities sought to deport him.
Tuesday’s decision was the third in a series of Supreme Court cases considering whether a given state drug crime amounted to an aggravated felony under the immigration laws. If it does, the government has no choice but to deport the defendant. If it does not, the attorney general has the discretion to show leniency.
The question in all of the cases was how to understand state drug convictions in light of a part of the immigration laws that defines aggravated felonies to include drug offenses that would be punishable by more than a year in prison under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
The act generally calls for a maximum term of five years for possessing controlled substances with an intent to distribute them. But it contains an exception for the distribution of “a small amount of marijuana for no remuneration,” which judges may treat as a misdemeanor subject to no more than a year in prison.
Justice Sotomayor wrote that it was not clear whether the formal elements of Mr. Moncrieffe’s state conviction fit within the federal exception. The ambiguity, she said, counted in his favor, sparing him from automatic deportation.
The federal government said the actual facts of the case mattered and should be determined during immigration proceedings. Justice Sotomayor rejected that approach, saying that “our nation’s overburdened immigration courts” would have difficulty making such determinations based on stale or missing evidence presented by immigrants who may be in detention and have no right to a lawyer.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the majority’s approach “has the effect of treating a substantial number of state felonies as federal misdemeanors, even when they would result in federal felony convictions.” The only theme that unites the court’s decisions in this area, Justice Thomas added, “appears to be that the government consistently loses.”
In a second dissent in the case, Moncrieffe v. Holder, No. 11-702, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the majority’s approach was “analytically confused.” It will, he said, allow people working for “some of the world’s most dangerous drug cartels” to escape automatic deportation. “The court’s decision,” Justice Alito added, “also means that the consequences of a conviction for illegal possession with intent to distribute will vary radically depending on the state in which the case is prosecuted.”
Justice Alito said that Mr. Moncrieffe had had the opportunity to show immigration authorities that he would have been eligible for lenient treatment under the federal drug law. But the “petitioner, for whatever reason, availed himself only of the opportunity to show that his conviction had involved a small amount of marijuana and did not present evidence — or even contend — that his offense had not involved remuneration.”