NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State’s highest court said on Tuesday that the U.S. Constitution guarantees jury trials to noncitizens charged with crimes that could subject them to deportation, in a divided ruling that prompted a call for the Supreme Court to weigh in.
The Court of Appeals rejected an argument by Bronx county prosecutors that deportation is merely a civil consequence of criminal convictions, and the Sixth Amendment did not require jury trials for defendants charged with minor yet deportable crimes.
“It is now beyond cavil that the penalty of deportation is among the most extreme and that it may, in some circumstances, rival incarceration in its loss of liberty,” Judge Leslie Stein wrote for a 5-2 majority.
The decision coincided with moves by U.S. President Donald Trump to speed up deportations and tighten U.S. borders. His administration was not involved in the case.
Within New York, the decision means noncitizens will be entitled to jury trials even if their alleged deportable crimes carry maximum prison terms of six months or less.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said the decision addressed the “harsh realities” of possible deportation, but also threatened “serious backlogs and disparities in the administration of justice” in state courts and conflicted with Supreme Court precedents. She said she may appeal to that body.
The court of appeals ordered a new trial for Saylor Suazo, who was convicted in a bench trial on misdemeanor charges carrying a maximum three-month jail term, for allegedly throwing the mother of his children to the floor and then choking and striking her.
Suazo, a Honduran citizen, is considered a “visa overstay,” making him deportable, court papers show.
The appeals court said it was confident that state trial judges were “competent” to address potential immigration issues.
Judge Michael Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, dissented, saying the threat of deportation did not transform “petty” offenses into serious crimes.
He also faulted the majority for letting federal immigration law override the state legislature’s view of the severity of various crimes, as reflected in their maximum punishments, saying it was “doubtful” the Supreme Court had this in mind.
“In the end, the Supreme Court has the ultimate authority to settle this issue,” Garcia said. “[I]t should do so.”
Mark Zeno, a Columbia Law School lecturer representing Suazo, welcomed the decision.
“You can’t separate penalties imposed by the federal government from those the state imposes when viewing a conviction’s consequences,” Zeno said.
The case is People v Suazo, New York State Court of Appeals, No. 117.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Grant McCool