Supremes: No Deporting Drunk Drivers

Justices Rule Drunken Driving Cannot Mean Automatic Deportation of Immigrants [RSS] (NYT)

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that driving under the influence of alcohol, even when serious bodily injury results, is not a “crime of violence” for which an immigrant can be subject to automatic deportation. The unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, rejected an interpretation of the law advanced by both the Bush and the Clinton administrations. The decision opened the door for a Haitian immigrant who was deported under that interpretation two years ago to return to his family in Miami.

The immigrant, Josue Leocal, was a lawful permanent resident who had lived in the United States for 20 years when he was deported for having committed an “aggravated felony” – driving while drunk, running a red light and injuring two people. He pleaded guilty to violating Florida’s drunken-driving law and served two years in prison. While he was serving his sentence, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings against him, and an immigration judge found him deportable. The Board of Immigration Appeals upheld the order, as did the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

The Supreme Court accepted Mr. Leocal’s appeal, Leocal v. Ashcroft, No. 03-583, because courts around the country had issued conflicting rulings on whether drunken driving that results in injury or death fits within Congress’s definition of a “crime of violence.” In 1988, Congress made noncitizens subject to automatic deportation after conviction for an “aggravated felony,” defined to include crimes of violence. Congress subsequently provided two basic definitions of “crime of violence”: an offense that includes “the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force” and any other felony that involves the “substantial risk” that physical force “may be used.”

While I have generally disagree with the Court’s interpretation of immigration law the last 20-odd years–especially with respect to granting various freebies and rights to illegal aliens–this strikes me as a no brainer. Indeed, the DoJ interpretation of this statute is rather plainly idiotic.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.