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Supreme Court: marijuana possession doesn't require deportation

When a Jamaican citizen who had been legally living in the U.S. for years was pulled over in Georgia, police reported finding 1.3 grams, or 0.046 of an ounce, of marijuana in his car. That would ordinarily be charged as misdemeanor possession of marijuana. For reasons not detailed in the press, however, the man pled guilty to possession with intent to sell -- a simple, non-aggravated felony in Georgia.

That offense, however, would have been an aggravated felony if he had been prosecuted under federal law. Therefore, the Department of Justice initiated deportation proceedings.

While the Justice Department has the authority to deport legal immigrants for any criminal conviction, it is not required to do so. In this case, however, the agency believed that deportation was mandatory. Federal law requires deportation, even of legal immigrants and green card holders, upon conviction of any aggravated felony.

On appeal, the man's attorney pointed out that the amount of marijuana in question was exceedingly small and, despite the man's perhaps ill-advised plea bargain, there was no evidence he intended to sell it. Furthermore, he hadn't been convicted of an aggravated felony at all, since Georgia drug laws differ from those of the federal government.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7 to 2 vote, agreed with the defendant.

"If a noncitizen's conviction for a marijuana-distribution offense fails to establish that the offense involved either remuneration or more than a small amount of marijuana," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the court, "the conviction is not for an aggravated felony."

The court made clear that its ruling doesn't mean those convicted of low-level marijuana possession cannot be deported -- only means the Justice Department has the discretion to take the full circumstances into account before deciding to deport legal immigrants convicted of such crimes.

The Georgia man, unfortunately, has already been deported back to Jamaica. His successful appeal may mean that he will not be permanently barred from return to the U.S., but the true import of the court's ruling is that otherwise law-abiding legal immigrants won't necessarily be deported -- and that corrects a serious injustice in the law.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, "Justices say marijuana possession not a deportable offense," Lawrence Hurley, April 23, 2013

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