U.S. justices limit deportations of immigrants for pot possession

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 23, 2013 2:29pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a legal immigrant is not subject to mandatory deportation after being convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana.

The court held on a 7-2 vote that Adrian Moncrieffe, a Jamaican citizen, could not be subject to mandatory deportation because basic marijuana possession is not a felony under federal law.

The federal government has the authority to deport legal immigrants under various circumstances, including when the individual involved is convicted of an aggravated felony.

Immigration officials sought to deport Moncrieffe after he was convicted under Georgia law for possession and intent to distribute 1.3 grams of marijuana.

In Tuesday's ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the majority that a conviction for a small amount of marijuana without evidence that the defendant was trying to make money does not rise to the level of an aggravated felony.

"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, the conviction is not for an aggravated felony," she wrote.

Sotomayor said that Moncrieffe could still be subject to deportation, but that he and others like him would now be able to contest the decision in further immigration proceedings and the Justice Department would be able to use its discretion in deciding whether to proceed.

"Escaping aggravated felony treatment does not mean escaping deportation," she wrote.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both wrote dissenting opinions.

Thomas wrote that the majority had "contorted the law" in reaching its conclusion.

The case is Moncrieffe v. Holder, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-702.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Trott and Philip Barbara)

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