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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
MOONES MELLOULI, PETITIONER v.
LORETTA E.LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit
[June 1, 2015]
Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case requires us to decide how immigration judges should apply a deportation (removal) provision, defined with reference to federal drug laws, to an alien convicted of a state drug-paraphernalia misdemeanor.
Lawful permanent resident Moones Mellouli, in 2010, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense under Kansas law, the possession of drug paraphernalia to “store, contain, conceal, inject, ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce a controlled substance into the human body.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5709(b)(2) (2013 Cum. Supp.). The sole “paraphernalia” Mellouli was charged with possessing was a sock in which he had placed four orange tablets. The criminal charge and plea agreement did not identify the controlled substance involved, but Mellouli had acknowledged, prior to the charge and plea, that the tablets were Adderall. Mellouli was sentenced to a suspended term of 359 days and 12 months’ probation.
In February 2012, several months after Mellouli successfully completed probation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested him as deportable under 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) based on his Kansas misde-meanor conviction. Section 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) authorizes the removal of an alien “convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21).” We hold that Mellouli’s Kansas conviction for concealing unnamed pills in his sock didnot trigger removal under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). The drug-paraphernalia possession law under which he was convicted, Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5709(b), by definition, related to a controlled substance: The Kansas statute made it unlawful “to use or possess with intent to use any drug paraphernalia to . . . store [or] conceal . . . a controlled substance.” But it was immaterial under that law whether the substance was defined in
21 U. S. C. §802
. Nor didthe State charge, or seek to prove, that Mellouli possessed a substance on the §802 schedules. Federal law (§1227(a)(2)(B)(i)), therefore, did not authorize Mellouli’s removal.
This case involves the interplay between several federal and state statutes. Section 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act,
163, as amended, authorizes the removal of an alien “convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21), other than a single offense involving possession for one’s own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana.” Section 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) incorporates
21 U. S. C. §802, which limits the term “controlled substance” to a “drug or other substance” included in one of five federal schedules. §802(6).
The statute defining the offense to which Mellouli pleaded guilty, Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5709(b), proscribes “possess[ion] with intent to use any drug paraphernalia to,” among other things, “store” or “conceal” a “controlled substance.” Kansas defines “controlled substance” as any drug included on its own schedules, and makes no reference to §802 or any other federal law. §21–5701(a).[1
] At the time of Mellouli’s conviction, Kansas’ schedules included at least nine substances not included in the federal lists. See §65–4105(d)(30), (31), (33), (34), (36) (2010 Cum. Supp.); §65–4111(g) (2002); §65–4113(d)(1), (e), (f ) (2010 Cum. Supp.); see also Brief for Respondent 9, n. 2.
The question presented is whether a Kansas conviction for using drug paraphernalia to store or conceal a controlled substance, §21–5709(b), subjects an alien to deportation under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i), which applies to an alien “convicted of a violation of [a state law] relating to a controlled substance (as defined in [§802]).”
Mellouli, a citizen of Tunisia, entered the United States on a student visa in 2004. He attended U. S. universities, earning a bachelor of arts degree, magna cum laude
, as well as master’s degrees in applied mathematics and economics. After completing his education, Mellouli worked as an actuary and taught mathematics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In 2009, he became a conditional permanent resident and, in 2011, a lawful permanent resident. Since December 2011, Mellouli has been engaged to be married to a U. S. citizen.
In 2010, Mellouli was arrested for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. During a postarrest search in a Kansas detention facility, deputies discovered four orange tablets hidden in Mellouli’s sock. According to a probable-cause affidavit submitted in the state prosecution, Mellouli acknowledged that the tablets were Adderall and that he did not have a prescription for the drugs. Adderall, the brand name of an amphetamine-based drug typically prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder,[2
] is a controlled substance under both federal and Kansas law. See 21 CFR §1308.12(d)(1) (2014) (listing “amphetamine” and its “salts” and “isomers”); Kan. Stat. Ann. §65–4107(d)(1) (2013 Cum. Supp.) (same). Based on the probable-cause affidavit, a criminal complaint was filed charging Mellouli with trafficking contraband in jail.
Ultimately, Mellouli was charged with only the lesser offense of possessing drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor. The amended complaint alleged that Mellouli had “use[d] or possess[ed] with intent to use drug paraphernalia, to-wit: a sock, to store, contain, conceal, inject, ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance.” App. 23. The complaint did not identify the substance contained in the sock. Mellouli pleaded guilty to the paraphernalia possession charge; he also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. For both offenses, Mellouli was sentenced to a suspended term of 359 days and 12 months’ probation.
In February 2012, several months after Mellouli successfully completed probation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested him as deportable under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) based on his paraphernalia possession conviction. An Immigration Judge ordered Mellouli deported, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed the order. Mellouli was deported in 2012.
Under federal law, Mellouli’s concealment of controlled-substance tablets in his sock would not have qualified as a drug-paraphernalia offense. Federal law criminalizes the sale of or commerce in drug paraphernalia, but possession alone is not criminalized at all. See
21 U. S. C. §863(a)–(b). Nor does federal law define drug paraphernalia to include common household or ready-to-wear items like socks; rather, it defines paraphernalia as any “equipment, product, or material” which is “primarily intended or designed for use
” in connection with various drug-related activities. §863(d) (emphasis added). In 19 States as well, the conduct for which Mellouli was convicted—use of a sock to conceal a controlled substance—is not a criminal offense. Brief for National Immigrant Justice Center et al. as Amici Curiae
7. At most, it is a low-level infraction, often not attended by a right to counsel. Id.,
The Eighth Circuit denied Mellouli’s petition for review. 719 F. 3d 995 (2013). We granted certiorari, 573 U. S.___ (2014), and now reverse the judgment of the EighthCircuit.
We address first the rationale offered by the BIA and affirmed by the Eighth Circuit, which differentiates paraphernalia offenses from possession and distribution offenses. Essential background, in evaluating the rationale shared by the BIA and the Eighth Circuit, is the categorical approach historically taken in determining whether a state conviction renders an alien removable under the immigration statute.[3
] Because Congress predicated de-portation “on convictions, not conduct,” the approach looks to the statutory definition of the offense of conviction, not to the particulars of an alien’s behavior. Das, The Immigration Penalties of Criminal Convictions: Resurrecting Categorical Analysis in Immigration Law, 86 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 1669, 1701, 1746 (2011). The state conviction triggers removal only if, by definition, the underlying crime falls within a category of removable offenses defined by federal law. Ibid.
An alien’s actual conduct is irrelevant to the inquiry, as the adjudicator must “presume that the conviction rested upon nothing more than the least of the acts criminalized” under the state statute. Moncrieffe
, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 5) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).[4
The categorical approach “has a long pedigree in our Nation’s immigration law.” Id.,
at ___ (slip op., at 6). As early as 1913, courts examining the federal immigration statute concluded that Congress, by tying immigration penalties to convictions
, intended to “limi[t] the immigration adjudicator’s assessment of a past criminal conviction to a legal analysis of the statutory offense,” and to disallow “[examination] of the facts underlying the crime.” Das, supra
, at 1688, 1690.
Rooted in Congress’ specification of conviction, not conduct, as the trigger for immigration consequences, the categorical approach is suited to the realities of the system. Asking immigration judges in each case to determine the circumstances underlying a state conviction would burden a system in which “large numbers of cases [are resolved by] immigration judges and front-line immigration officers, often years after the convictions.” Koh, The Whole Better than the Sum: A Case for the Categorical Approach to Determining the Immigration Consequences of Crime, 26 Geo. Immigration L. J. 257, 295 (2012). By focusing on the legal question of what a conviction necessarily
established, the categorical approach ordinarily works to promote efficiency, fairness, and predictability in the administration of immigration law. See id.,
at 295–310; Das, supra,
at 1725–1742. In particular, the approach enables aliens “to anticipate the immigration consequences of guilty pleas in criminal court,” and to enter “ ‘safe harbor’ guilty pleas [that] do not expose the [alien defendant] to the risk of immigration sanctions.” Koh, supra,
at 307. See Das, supra,
The categorical approach has been applied routinely to assess whether a state drug conviction triggers removal under the immigration statute. As originally enacted, the removal statute specifically listed covered offenses and covered substances. It made deportable, for example, any alien convicted of “import[ing],” “buy[ing],” or “sell[ing]” any “narcotic drug,” defined as “opium, coca leaves, cocaine, or any salt, derivative, or preparation of opium or coca leaves, or cocaine.” Ch. 202,
596–597. Over time, Congress amended the statute to include additional offenses and additional narcotic drugs.[6
] Ultimately, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 replaced the increasingly long list of controlled substances with the now familiar reference to “a controlled substance (as defined in [§802]).” See §1751,
3207–47. In interpreting successive versions of the removal statute, the BIA inquired whether the state statute under which the alien was convicted covered federally controlled substances and not others.[7
Matter of Paulus
, 11 I. & N. Dec. 274 (1965), is illustrative. At the time the BIA decided Paulus
, the immigration statute made deportable any alien who had been “convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation relating to the illicit possession of or traffic in narcotic drugs or mari-huana.” Id.,
at 275. California controlled certain “narcotics,” such as peyote, not listed as “narcotic drugs” under federal law. Ibid
. The BIA concluded that an alien’s California conviction for offering to sell an unidentified “narcotic” was not a deportable offense, for it was possible that the conviction involved a substance, such as peyote, controlled only under California law. Id.,
Because the alien’s conviction was not necessarily predicated upon a federally controlled “narcotic drug,” the BIA concluded that the conviction did not establish the alien’s deportability. Id.
, at 276.
Under the Paulus
analysis, adhered to as recently as 2014 in Matter of Ferreira
, 26 I. & N. Dec. 415 (BIA 2014),[8
] Mellouli would not be deportable. Mellouli pleaded guilty to concealing unnamed pills in his sock. At the time of Mellouli’s conviction, Kansas’ schedules of controlled substances included at least nine substances—e.g.
, salvia and jimson weed—not defined in §802. See Kan. Stat. Ann. §65–4105(d)(30), (31). The state law involved in Mellouli’s conviction, therefore, like the California statute in Paulus
, was not confined to federally controlled substances; it required no proof by the prosecutor that Mellouli used his sock to conceal a substance listed under §802, as opposed to a substance controlled only under Kansas law. Under the categorical approach applied in Paulus
, Mellouli’s drug-paraphernalia conviction does not render him deportable. In short, the state law under which he was charged categorically “relat[ed] to a controlled substance,” but was not limited to substances “defined in [§802].”[9
The BIA, however, announced and applied a different approach to drug-paraphernalia offenses (as distinguished from drug possession and distribution offenses) in Matter of Martinez Espinoza
, 25 I. & N. Dec. 118 (2009). There, the BIA ranked paraphernalia statutes as relating to “the drug trade in general.” Id.,
at 121. The BIA rejected the argument that a paraphernalia conviction should not count at all because it targeted implements, not controlled substances. Id.,
at 120. It then reasoned that a paraphernalia conviction “relates to” any and all controlled substances, whether or not federally listed, with which the paraphernalia can be used. Id.,
at 121. Under this reasoning, there is no need to show that the type of controlled substance involved in a paraphernalia conviction is one defined in §802.
The Immigration Judge in this case relied upon Martinez Espinoza
in ordering Mellouli’s removal, quoting that decision for the proposition that “ ‘the requirement of a correspondence between the Federal and State controlled substance schedules, embraced by Matter of Paulus
. . . has never been extended’ ” to paraphernalia offenses. App. to Pet. for Cert. 32 (quoting Martinez Espinoza
, 25 I. & N. Dec., at 121). The BIA affirmed, reasoning that Mellouli’s conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia “involves drug trade in general and, thus, is covered under [§1227(a)(2)(B)(i)].” App. to Pet. for Cert. 18. Denying Mellouli’s petition for review, the Eighth Circuit deferred to the BIA’s decision in Martinez Espinoza
, and held that a Kansas paraphernalia conviction “ ‘relates to’ a federal controlled substance because it is a crime . . . ‘associated with the drug trade in general.’ ” 719 F. 3d, at 1000.
The disparate approach to state drug convictions, devised by the BIA and applied by the Eighth Circuit, finds no home in the text of §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). The approach, moreover, “leads to consequences Congress could not have intended.” Moncrieffe
, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 15). Statutes should be interpreted “as a symmetrical and coherent regulatory scheme.” FDA
v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
529 U. S. 120,
(internal quotation marks omitted). The BIA, however, has adopted conflicting positions on the meaning of §1227(a)(2)(B)(i), distinguishing drug possession and distribution offenses from offenses involving the drug trade in general, with the anomalous result that minor paraphernalia possession offenses are treated more harshly than drug possession and distribution offenses. Drug possession and distribution convictions trigger removal only if they necessarily involve a federally controlled substance, see Paulus
, 11 I. & N. Dec. 274, while convictions for paraphernalia possession, an offense less grave than drug possession and distribution, trigger removal whether or not they necessarily implicate a federally controlled substance, see Martinez Espinoza
, 25 I. & N. Dec. 118. The incongruous upshot is that an alien is not
removable for possessing
a substance controlled only under Kansas law, but he is
removable for using a sock to contain that substance. Because it makes scant sense, the BIA’s interpretation, we hold, is owed no deference under the doctrine described in Chevron U. S. A. Inc.
v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.
467 U. S. 837,
Offering an addition to the BIA’s rationale, the Eighth Circuit reasoned that a state paraphernalia possession conviction categorically relates to a federally controlled substance so long as there is “nearly a complete overlap” between the drugs controlled under state and federal law. 719 F. 3d, at 1000.[10
] The Eighth Circuit’s analysis, however, scarcely explains or ameliorates the BIA’s anomalous separation of paraphernalia possession offenses from drug possession and distribution offenses.
Apparently recognizing this problem, the Government urges, as does the dissent, that the overlap between state and federal drug schedules supports the removal of aliens convicted of any
drug crime, not just paraphernalia of-fenses. As noted, §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) authorizes the removal of any alien “convicted of a violation of . . . any law or reg-ulation of a State, the United States, or a foreigncountry relating to a controlled substance (as defined in [§802]).” According to the Government, the words “relating to” modify “law or regulation,” rather than “violation.” Brief for Respondent 25–26 (a limiting phrase ordinarily modifies the last antecedent). Therefore, the Government argues, aliens who commit “drug crimes” in States whose drug schedules substantially overlap the federal schedules are removable, for “state statutes that criminalize hundreds of federally controlled drugs and a handful of similar substances, are laws ‘relating to’ federally controlled substances.” Brief for Respondent 17.
We do not gainsay that, as the Government urges, the last reasonable referent of “relating to,” as those words appear in §1227(a)(2)(B)(i), is “law or regulation.” The removal provision is thus satisfied when the elements that make up the state crime of conviction relate to a federally controlled substance. As this case illustrates, however, the Government’s construction of the federal removal statute stretches to the breaking point, reaching state-court convictions, like Mellouli’s, in which “[no] controlled substance (as defined in [§802])” figures as an element of the offense. We recognize, too, that the §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) words to which the dissent attaches great weight, i.e.
“relating to,” post
, at 2–3, are “broad” and “indeterminate.” Maracich
, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 9) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).[11
] As we cautioned in New York State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans
v. Travelers Ins. Co.
514 U. S. 645,
, those words, “extend[ed] to the furthest stretch of [their] indeterminacy, . . . stop nowhere.” “[C]ontext,” therefore, may “tu[g] . . . in favor of a narrower reading.” Yates
v. United States
, 574 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 10). Context does so here.
The historical background of §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) demonstrates that Congress and the BIA have long required a direct link between an alien’s crime of conviction and a particular federally controlled drug. Supra
, at 8–9. The Government’s position here severs that link by authorizing deportation any time the state statute of conviction bears some general relation to federally controlled drugs. The Government offers no cogent reason why its position is limited to state drug schedules that have a “substantial overlap” with the federal schedules. Brief for Respondent 31. A statute with any
overlap would seem to be related to
federally controlled drugs. Indeed, the Government’s position might well encompass convictions for offenses related to drug activity more generally, such as gun possession, even if those convictions do not actually involve drugs (let alone federally controlled drugs). The Solicitor General, while resisting this particular example, acknowledged that convictions under statutes “that have some connection to drugs indirectly” might fall within §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). Tr. of Oral Arg. 36. This sweeping interpretation departs so sharply from the statute’s text and history that it cannot be considered a permissible reading.
In sum, construction of §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) must be faithful to the text, which limits the meaning of “controlled substance,” for removal purposes, to the substances controlled under §802. We therefore reject the argument that any
drug offense renders an alien removable, without regard to the appearance of the drug on a §802 schedule. Instead, to trigger removal under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i), the Government must connect an element of the alien’s conviction to a drug “defined in [§802].”
* * *
For the reasons stated, the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.