Newark, NJ-A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision was a win for immigrants by clarifying when a state level drug paraphernalia charge is a removable offense under federal law.
In Mellouli vs. Lynch, which was decided on June 1st, Supreme Court justices ordered immigration officials to reverse the deportation of legal permanent resident who was convicted of a minor drug paraphernalia charge in the state of Kansas.
The case centered on Moones Mellouli, a Tunisian national who was a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who got into legal trouble and made a decision about his case which eventually led to his removal from the U.S.
Mellouli earned two degrees from American universities and went on to teach math at the University of Missouri, but in 2010, he was arrested for driving under the influence in Kansas and taken to a local jail. During his intake, a search revealed that Mellouli had four orange pills tucked into one of his socks. According to a police, he admitted to police that the pills were Adderall, a drug used to treat attention deficit disorder. Mellouli was then charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, because under Kansas drug statutes, drug paraphernalia is anything that can be used to “store, contain or conceal” a controlled substance.
Mellouli, like many people facing criminal charges agreed to a plea bargain for the drug paraphernalia charge, but that would prove to be a mistake. Seven months after being sentenced, Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined Mellouli’s conviction was a removable offense and moved to have him deported.
Under federal law, lawful immigrants are removable if they have been convicted of a drug–related offense such as trafficking and/or possession of drugs—with the exception of 30 grams or less of marijuana—as well as possession of drug paraphernalia. Although it seems like federal law is clear about what drug offenses warrant an order of removal, the Board of Immigration Appeals applies a strict standard and some immigrants find themselves in deportation proceedings for minor drug paraphernalia charges that would not normally trigger an order of removal.
In Mellouli’s case, the questions before the high court in this case were: Does a minor paraphernalia charge under state statutes count as a federal drug violation and therefore a deportable offense? And could on ordinary object, a sock in this case, be considered a removable criminal offense?
In a 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia is not a removable offense and reversed Mellouli’s removal.
By reversing Mellouli’s removal, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that under federal law, “his concealment of controlled substance tablets in his sock would not have qualified as a drug-paraphernalia offense.” In their opinion, justices wrote that “federal law criminalizes the sale of or commerce in drug paraphernalia, but possession is not criminalized,” adding that federal law does not classify “common household or ready-to-wear items like socks” as drug paraphernalia.
This is the second case before the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years to examine what is considered drug paraphernalia charge that would warrant an immigrant’s removal. The other case, Ramiro Enrique
Rojas vs. The Attorney General of the United States, also dealt with drug paraphernalia charges and deportation. In that case, Supreme Court Justices sided with the immigrant and reversed his removal.
This is case important because not only does it clarify what is viewed as drug paraphernalia under federal law, but it also demonstrates the risk immigrants face when they agree to a plea bargain.
For many people a plea bargain is an appropriate way to handle misdemeanor criminal charges with minimal impact, but that isn’t always the case for an immigrant. Sometimes even a minor criminal charges can trigger a deportation order, as it did in Mellouli’s case, so immigrants must first evaluate how a plea bargain will affect their immigration status. Because my practice is focused on both criminal and immigration law, I can help immigrants facing criminal charges negotiate for a plea bargain that won’t affect their immigration status.
If you are in New Jersey and are facing criminal charges or need help with an immigration issue, contact by Newark office and we can arrange a time to discuss your case