U.S. Supreme Court Decision Potentially Makes It More Difficult to Deport Immigrants Convicted of Violent Crimes

Just last month, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that a federal statute dealing with the deportation of immigrants convicted of “violent felonies” was unconstitutionally vague. This means the court found that the law at issue in the case was too broad, and not defined well enough to properly determine who was subjected to the law.

The court also held that the statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment; meaning that the Statute violated basic Constitutional protections given to all individuals in the United States, regardless of their citizenship. The case before the court was Sessions v. Dimaya.

In a surprising turn of events, Justice Gorsuch, considered a conservative Justice, sided with the four liberal-leaning justices. Justice Gorsuch, you will recall, was President Trump’s nominee to replace the famously conservative Justice Scalia on the court and has traditionally sided with the other conservative Justices. The Court’s decision on this topic contrasts much of President Trump’s campaign platform, as it potentially makes it more difficult to deport immigrants convicted of violent crimes.

Case Background

The individual challenging the law, James Garcia Dimaya was a native of the Philippines. Mr. Dimaya had resided lawfully in the United States since 1992. During that time Mr. Dimaya was convicted twice of first-degree burglary under California state law. (Cal. Penal Code Ann. §§ 459, 460(a)). Following his second offense, the government sought to remove/deport, Mr. Dimaya.

Both an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals found that in California, first-degree burglary is a “crime of violence” under the laws of the United States, thus permitting Mr. Dimaya’s deportation. The Board reasoned that the offense “carrie[d] a substantial risk of the use of force.” See Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204, 1211 (2018).

The idea behind the Immigration Court’s ruling was that a non-citizen convicted of a violent crime, can be deported, or removed from the Unites States. The issue in the case before the Supreme Court, was what is the definition of “crime of violence”, as defined in subsection b. Subsection b was classified as the residual, or catch-all clause, and was supposed to incorporate crimes that subsection a did not adequately cover.

18 U. S. C. §16(b) says that  “crime of violence” means:

(b) any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.

The court reasoned that the section of law was vague because it “required a court to picture the kind of conduct that the crime involves in ‘the ordinary case,’ and to judge whether that situation presents”, a degree of risk that has not yet been well-defined. For a court to try to “imagine” the different circumstances tends to generate more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the United States Constitution allows.

The Court decided that overly vague laws are unconstitutional because they do not provide ordinary people with “fair notice” of the conduct a statute describes. See Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204, 1212 (2018). See also Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 162, 92 S.Ct. 839, 31 L.Ed.2d 110 (1972). See Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204, 1216 (2018), See also Johnson v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 2554 (2015) for further analysis of the case.

What will the Legislature do next? It seems uncertain, but for now, this is certainly a win in the fight for all immigrants accused of crimes in the United States.