Mellouli v. Lynch
575 U.S. ___ (2015)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense under Kansas law, the possession of drug paraphernalia “to . . . store [or] conceal . . . a controlled substance,” consisting of a sock in which he had placed four unidentified orange tablets. An Immigration Judge ordered him deported under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(B)(i), which authorizes the deportation 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 (defined in section 802 of Title 21).” Section 802 limits “controlled substance” to a “drug or other substance” included in federal schedules. Kansas defines “controlled substance” according to its own schedules, without reference to Section 802, and included substances not on the federal lists. The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed. The Eighth Circuit denied a petition for review. The Supreme Court reversed. Mellouli’s Kansas conviction for concealing unnamed pills in his sock did not trigger removal. Under the categorical approach, a state conviction triggers removal only if, by definition, the underlying crime falls within a category of removable offenses defined by federal law. The BIA’s reasoning, that there is no need to show that the type of controlled substance involved in a paraphernalia conviction is one defined in section 802, leads to the anomalous result of treating less grave paraphernalia possession misdemeanors more harshly than drug possession and distribution offenses. The Court rejected the government’s argument that aliens who commit any drug crime in states whose drug schedules substantially overlap the federal schedules are deportable, because the state statutes are laws “relating to” federally controlled substances. 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 section 802.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)  | 
  • Dissent (Clarence Thomas)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MELLOULI v. LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 13–1034. Argued January 14, 2015—Decided June 1, 2015

Petitioner Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense under Kansas law, the possession of drug paraphernalia “to . . . store [or] conceal . . . a controlled substance.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5709(b)(2). The sole “paraphernalia” Mellouli was charged with possessing was a sock in which he had placed four unidentified orange tablets. Citing Mellouli’s misdemeanor conviction, an Immigration Judge ordered him deported under 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(B)(i), which authorizes the deportation (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).” Section 802, in turn, limits the term “controlled substance” to a “drug or other substance” included in one of five federal schedules. 21 U. S. C. §802(6). Kansas defines “controlled substance” as any drug included on its own schedules, without reference to §802. Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5701(a). At the time of Mellouli’s conviction, Kansas’ schedules included at least nine substances not on the federal lists. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) affirmed Mellouli’s deportation order, and the Eighth Circuit denied his petition for review.

Held: Mellouli’s Kansas conviction for concealing unnamed pills in his sock did not trigger removal under §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). Pp. 5–14.

(a) The categorical approach historically taken in determining whether a state conviction renders an alien removable looks to the statutory definition of the offense of conviction, not to the particulars of the alien’s conduct. The state conviction triggers removal only if, by definition, the underlying crime falls within a category of removable offenses defined by federal law. The BIA has long applied the categorical approach to assess whether a state drug conviction triggers removal under successive versions of what is now §1227(a)(2)(B)(i). Matter of Paulus, 11 I. & N. Dec. 274, is illustrative. At the time the BIA decided Paulus, California controlled certain “narcotics” not listed as “narcotic drugs” under federal law. Id., at 275. 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 controlled only under California, not federal, law. Under the Paulus analysis, Mellouli would not be deportable. The state law involved in Mellouli’s conviction, like the California statute in Paulus, was not confined to federally controlled substances; it also included substances controlled only under state, not federal, law.

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. There, the BIA ranked paraphernalia statutes as relating to “the drug trade in general,” reasoning 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 120–121. 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 BIA’s disparate approach to drug possession and distribution offenses and paraphernalia possession offenses finds no home in §1227(a)(2)(B)(i)’s text and “leads to consequences Congress could not have intended.” Moncrieffe v. Holder, 569 U. S. ___, ___. That approach has the anomalous result of treating less grave paraphernalia possession misdemeanors more harshly than drug possession and distribution offenses. 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 is owed no deference under the doctrine described in Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 . Pp. 5–11.

(b) The Government’s interpretation of the statute is similarly flawed. The Government argues that aliens who commit any drug crime, not just paraphernalia offenses, in States whose drug schedules substantially overlap the federal schedules are deportable, 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. While the words “relating to” are broad, the Government’s reading stretches the construction of §1227(a)(2)(B)(i) 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. 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. Accordingly, 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].” Pp. 11–14.

719 F. 3d 995, reversed.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Alito, J., joined.

Primary Holding
Using the categorical approach in immigration removal proceedings based on criminal convictions, a conviction under state law is an appropriate foundation for removal only if the definition of the crime of which the non-citizen was convicted fits within a category of removable offenses under federal law.

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