Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions,
581 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Petitioner, a Mexican citizen and lawful permanent resident of the U.S., pleaded no contest in a California court under a statute criminalizing “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator,” defining “minor” as “a person under the age of 18.” He was ordered removed under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(3), as an “alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony,” including “sexual abuse of a minor.” The Supreme Court reversed. Under the categorical approach employed to determine whether an alien’s conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony, the court asks whether the state statute defining the crime of conviction categorically fits within the "generic" federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony. Petitioner’s state conviction would be an “aggravated felony” only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor, regardless of the actual facts of the case. The least of the acts criminalized by the California law would be consensual sexual intercourse between a victim who is almost 18 and a perpetrator who just turned 21. The generic federal definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” requires that the victim be younger than 16 and a significant majority of state criminal codes set the age of consent at 16 for statutory rape offenses predicated exclusively on the age of the participants.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (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

ESQUIVEL-QUINTANA v. SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL

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

No. 16–54. Argued February 27, 2017—Decided May 30, 2017

Petitioner, a citizen of Mexico and lawful permanent resident of the United States, pleaded no contest in a California court to a statutory rape offense criminalizing “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator.” Cal. Penal Code Ann. §261.5(c). For purposes of that offense, California defines “minor” as “a person under the age of 18.” §261.5(a). Based on this conviction, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which makes removable “[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony,” 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), including “sexual abuse of a minor,” §1101(a)(43)(A). An Immigration Judge ordered petitioner removed to Mexico. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed that petitioner’s crime constituted sexual abuse of a minor and dismissed his appeal. A divided Court of Appeals denied his petition for review.

Held: In the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” requires the age of the victim to be less than 16. Pp. 2–12.

(a) Under the categorical approach employed to determine whether an alien’s conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony, the Court asks whether “ ‘the state statute defining the crime of conviction’ categorically fits within the ‘generic’ federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony.” Moncrieffe v. Holder, 569 U. S. 184 . Petitioner’s state conviction is thus an “aggravated felony” only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor. Johnson v. United States, 559 U. S. 133 . Pp. 2–3.

(b) The least of the acts criminalized by Cal. Penal Code §261.5(c) would be consensual sexual intercourse between a victim who is almost 18 and a perpetrator who just turned 21. Regardless of the actual facts of the case, this Court presumes that petitioner’s conviction was based on those acts. Pp. 3–4.

(c) In the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” requires that the victim be younger than 16. The Court begins, as always, with the text. Pp. 4–7.

(1) Congress added sexual abuse of a minor to the INA in 1996. At that time, the ordinary meaning of “sexual abuse” included “the engaging in sexual contact with a person who is below a specified age or who is incapable of giving consent because of age or mental or physical incapacity.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law 454. By providing that the abuse must be “of a minor,” the INA focuses on age, rather than mental or physical incapacity. Accordingly, to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor, the statute of conviction must prohibit certain sexual acts based at least in part on the age of the victim. Statutory rape laws, which are one example of this category of crimes, generally provide that an older person may not engage in sexual intercourse with a younger person under the “age of consent.” Reliable dictionaries indicate that the “generic” age of consent in 1996 was 16, and it remains so today. Pp. 4–6.

(2) The Government argues that sexual abuse of a minor includes any conduct that is illegal, involves sexual activity, and is directed at a person younger than 18. For support, it points to the 1990 Black’s Law Dictionary, which defined sexual abuse of a minor as “[i]llegal sex acts performed against a minor by a parent, guardian, relative, or acquaintance” and defined “[m]inor” as “[a]n infant or person who is under the age of legal competence,” which in “most states” was “18.” But the generic federal offense does not correspond to the Government’s definition, for three reasons. First, the Government’s definition is inconsistent with its own dictionary’s requirement that a special relationship of trust exist between the victim and offender. Second, in the statutory rape context, “of a minor” refers to the age of consent, not the age of legal competence. Third, the Government’s definition turns the categorical approach on its head by defining the generic federal offense as whatever is illegal under the law of the State of conviction. Pp. 6–7.

(d) The structure of the INA, a related federal statute, and evidence from state criminal codes confirm that, for a statutory rape offense based solely on the age of the participants to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA, the victim must be younger than 16. The INA lists sexual abuse of a minor as an “aggravated” felony, §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), and lists it in the same subparagraph as “murder” and “rape,” §1101(a)(43)(A), suggesting that it encompasses only especially egregious felonies. A different statute, 18 U. S. C. §2243, criminalizes “[s]exual abuse of a minor or ward.” Section 2243 was amended to protect anyone under age 16 in the same omnibus law that added sexual abuse of a minor to the INA, suggesting that Congress understood that phrase to cover victims under (but not over) age 16. Finally, a significant majority of state criminal codes set the age of consent at 16 for statutory rape offenses predicated exclusively on the age of the participants. Pp. 7–11.

(e) This Court does not decide whether the generic crime of sexual abuse of a minor requires a particular age differential between the victim and the perpetrator or whether it encompasses sexual intercourse involving victims over 16 that is abusive because of the nature of the relationship between the participants. P. 11.

(f) Because the statute, read in context, unambiguously forecloses the Board’s interpretation of sexual abuse of a minor, neither the rule of lenity nor Chevron deference applies. Pp. 11–12.

810 F. 3d 1019, reversed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Gorsuch, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

Determining whether a conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony for deportation purposes requires evaluating whether the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute meets the generic federal definition of the corresponding aggravated felony, regardless of the facts of the specific case.

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