WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday about whether a California man can be deported for helping to steal a car.
The dispute arose because immigrants found guilty of an aggravated felony,which includes theft,are eligible for deportation.
Yet California law does not distinguish between auto thieves and those who help or are along for the ride. If the court decides in favor of Peruvian immigrant Luis Alexander Duenas-Alvarez,states would have to make that clear.
Duenas-Alvarez,a legal U.S. resident,was sentenced to three years in prison in 2002 for stealing a Honda Accord. An immigration judge ruled that Duenas-Alvarez was deportable under the Immigration and Nationality Act because a theft offense with a prison term of at least a year is an aggravated felony.
But this year,the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked his deportation. Its ruling said California's law was too broad and that the definition of an aggravated felony should not include the lesser offense of aiding and abetting.
Dan Himmelfarb,of the Justice Department's solicitor general's office who represented Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,said the 9th Circuit was wrong.
He said its decision “would not only have the consequence of drastically limiting the number of aliens who could be found to be aggravated felons,because of the difficulty of establishing that someone was convicted as a principal rather than an aider and abettor. It would also complicate removal cases enormously.”
Himmelfarb also pointed out that every state and the District of Columbia include aiding and abetting in the definition of every substantive crime. He argued that Congress intended to include accomplices to crimes in immigration law.
Christopher J. Meade,who represented Duenas-Alvarez,called the code broad and ambiguous because it does not differentiate between a thief,an accomplice and an accessory to car theft.
The California Vehicle Code states “any person who drives or takes a vehicle not his or her own,without the consent of the owner thereof,and with the intent either to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner thereof of his or her title to or possession of the vehicle,whether with or without intent to steal the vehicle,or any person who is party or accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing,is guilty of a public offense.”
Justice Antonin Scalia voiced skepticism at Meade's claim that the law is ambiguous.
“It says,‘who at the time and place last aforesaid did willfully and unlawfully drive or take a vehicle,'” Scalia said. “It seems to me there's no question what was charged is that he did willfully and unlawfully drive or take a vehicle. There is no way you can consider that an accessory.”
Although Duenas-Alvarez was charged as a principal,the immigration judge who heard his case ruled that Duenas-Alvarez did not intend to deprive the owner of the car permanently.
“All we know in this case,from the record,is that he was not charged with car theft,which requires an intent to steal,” Meade said. “He was rather charged under a conviction which covers joy riding.”
The justices jumped at the opportunity to discuss joy riding. The debate elicited laughter from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Clarence Thomas,especially after Meade offered the hypothetical example of a neighbor driving someone's car around the block and returning it.
“Is that what joy riding is?” Roberts asked. “That when you're done with your joy ride,you return the car where you picked it up? I thought you just abandoned it wherever you happened to be. What's the joy in that?”
“The joy,apparently,is you don't get convicted of theft,” Scalia retorted.
Himmelfarb argued that joy riding,though included in the statute,did not relate to the case because the vast majority of those cases were charged as misdemeanors,not felonies.
Breyer called Meade's joy riding position inconsistent. He made Meade squirm when he asked him to cite law that specified how long one could take a joy ride before it was considered theft.
The court is expected to rule by next summer.
Also on Tuesday,the court delivered its opinion in a similar case (Jose Antonio Lopez versus Alberto R. Gonzales). The case raised questions about whether the government can deport immigrants for drug offenses that are felonies in some states but misdemeanors under federal law. Justice David Souter delivered the 8-1 opinion,in favor of Lopez,that it cannot. Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion.