On January 14, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Mellouli v. Holder. This case is significant because it will help clarify which criminal convictions could lead to deportation for lawful permanent residents. The past few years, the federal government has stepped up efforts to deport lawful permanent residents for criminal convictions and this case could help clarify which crimes could lead to deportation from the United States. The Supreme Court's decision could have serious implications for people who are, or who have, faced criminal prosecution. So let's look at the facts of the case and the legal issues presented.
Moones Mellouli came to the United States in 2004 on a student visa from Tunisia. He later became a lawful permanent resident. He ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in Kansas for possessing drug paraphernalia. In particular he possessed a sock which he was using to store drugs that he would eventually use. So the paraphernalia was actually a sock. The federal government then instituted removal proceedings based on his conviction based on a conviction of a state law related to the violation of a law involving a controlled substance. The immigration court ordered Mellouli's removal from the United States and the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with the immigration court and dismissed Mellouli's appeal. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Board of Immigration Appeals and Mellouli appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Mellouli is engaged to a United States Citizen and has since been removed from the United States. If Mellouli loses, he could possibly never be able to get married to his U.S. Citizen fiance.
The removal statute, the statute that provides for the removal of legal permanent residents for criminal convictions, is complex. Mellouli is arguing that the removal statute clearly states that the conviction must be directly tied to a controlled substance. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that he may be removed if the conviction is based on paraphernalia that may be used in connection with a controlled substance. Mellouli is arguing that the Board of Immigration Appeals decision should be set aside because it is contrary to the plain language of the statute and that the Board of Immigration Appeals has been inconsistent in the past when it comes to applying and interpreting the language of the statute in other cases. The government is arguing that the Supreme Court should apply the statute broadly while Mellouli is arguing that the court should strictly apply the statute.
In the past, the Supreme Court has been unwilling to side with the removal of lawful permanent residents for convictions that involve minor criminal offenses. If the court finds that the statute is ambiguous, it may refuse to apply it to uphold Mellouli's removal. The hope is that this decision will help clarify a confusing area of law that makes it difficult for lawyers to provide accurate advice to criminal defendants who are not U.S. citizens and have to consider the immigration consequences of a criminal conviction.