U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Miami Haitians DUI May Halt Automatic Deportations

The Miami Herald
Posted on Wed. Nov. 10, 2004

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Miami Haitian's DUI May Halt Automatic Deportations
By Lisa Arthur

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday that a Miami man was wrongly deported to Haiti after serving two years in prison for drunken driving - an opinion that could have far-reaching impact on hundreds of similar cases involving immigrants.

The court found in favor of Josue Leocal, a husband and father of four who lived in the United States legally for 20 years.

He had never been in trouble with the law before the 2000 accident, in which two people were injured. Immigration officials deported him in November 2002, but Tuesday's ruling may allow Leocal, 48, to return to Florida where his family lives.

At issue: whether a DUI accident with injuries should qualify as a "crime of violence" - which under the 1996 immigration reform law is considered an "aggravated felony" that subjects non-citizens to automatic deportations.

In a ruling written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the high court said a felony offense must require injury causing harm - not mere negligence, as in Leocals's case - before immigrants are subject to the drastic consequence of deportations.

"Drunk driving is a national problem, as evidenced by the efforts of legislatures to prohibit such conduct impose appropriate remedies," Rehnquist wrote in the 11-page opinion. "But this fact does not warrant you shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit."

LANDMARK RULING?

Immigrant-rights advocates hailed the decision as a strike against what they call the government's increasingly aggressive policies, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Leocal's attorneys said they hoped the ruling would lead to his return to the United States. The court's ruling sent the case back to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which will reconsider the case in accordance with the high court's ruling.

The 11th Circuit ruled against Leocal last year.

Immigration advocates and attorneys say it is unclear whether the legal principles underpinning the DUI ??? will transfer to other cases classified as "crimes of violence."

"The court today decided the contours of what would constitute a 'crime of violence,' but each instance would have to be reviewed independently," said Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, a nationally regarded expert on immigration. "The ruling is significant because it defines some of the issues dealing with 'crimes of violence' and immigration."

Becky Sharpless, of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami agreed.

"The principle of the ruling and law might apply to other crimes, but it would have to be tested," she said.

IMMIGRATION REFORM

Crimes such as DUI triggered mandatory deportations in 1996, after Congress instituted a slate of immigration reforms during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted those policies, despite lower court rulings that disagreed with them.

Under the law, crimes that fall into one of at least 20 categories that result in a conviction and sentence of more than one year are deemed "aggravated felonies" and trigger deportation proceedings. In addition to "crimes of violence," other categories include "crimes of moral turpitude," which could include convictions for shoplifting and writing a bad check.

WIDESPREAD IMPACT

Sharpless and Kurzban say the ruling could affect hundreds of cases nationwide involving immigrants facing deportations for DUI accidents that causes injury.

"The 11th Circuit ruled [DUI] constituted a crime of violence in the Leocal case even though under state statutes they only had to prove negligence." Sharpless said. "The Supreme Court just refused to let the 11th Circuit overreach. I think this is a tremendous victory."

Kurzban said he had several clients facing DUI charges and convictions for whom the ruling would mean good news.

"It's a huge case for hundreds and hundreds of people who are affected by this each year," he said. "If the ruling had gone the other way, I think you would have seen substantially more deportations."

Wick Sollers, one of Leocal's Washington, D.C.-based attorneys, said the ruling resolves conflicting decisions from federal appellate courts around the country.

"The Supreme Court clearly ruled today that DUI is not a crime of violence for which one gets banished from the United States," said Sollers, who argued the appeal pro bono with attorney Mike Ciatti.

He is hopeful Leocal will be allowed to return to the United States.

"We're trying to reach him in Haiti now," said Sollers. "There is a process that will have to be followed and carried out, but we believe he'll return.

Others were less certain, saying Leocal's case would have to travel through the immigration process again by which time other issues could arise.

"Under the law in the 11th Circuit, the deportation of someone does not bar their return if they win the appeal, said Kurzban. "But you have to see how the case plays out and whether other grounds for deportation of the person will be argued."

Leocal's wife and four children, ages 11 through 17, are U.S. citizens and still live in South Florida, according to Ciatti. They could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy and Trenton Daniel contributed to this report.