Permanent resident removed for drug paraphernalia “sock” conviction has oral arguments at Supreme Court today

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case today that highlights the intersection of immigration law and the criminal justice system and could have an impact on those representing defendants in either area of law. According to SCOTUS Blog, the case before the Court, Mellouli v. Holder, is one in a number of recent cases where the justices have considered the impact of minor drug convictions on immigration status and removal proceedings. The case involves Moones Mellouli, who entered the U.S. in 2004 on a student visa and later became a lawful permanent resident. The National Law Review reports that Mellouli had earned two master’s degrees and worked as an actuary.

Mellouli pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense of possessing drug paraphernalia under Kansas law and was sentenced to probation by the criminal court. The statue under which Mellouli was convicted made no reference to a controlled substance. According to SCOTUS Blog, the drug paraphernalia in question was a sock in which Mellouli had hidden four tablets of the ADHD medication Adderall.

An immigration court ordered Mellouli removed for violating an immigration law that provides for deportation of immigrants who have been convicted of crimes under state law relating to a "controlled substance," as defined in federal law. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed the appeal and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals denied review, citing precedent that deference should be granted to the BIA’s decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court will now hear arguments about whether Mellouli should have been ordered removed under the INA. Mellouli argues that the INA requires a connection between the drug paraphernalia conviction and the federal statute defining controlled substances, and that he should not have been removed because his conviction for sock-possession under Kansas law was not related to a federally-defined drug. He argues that the appeals court should not have deferred to the BIA’s decision in his case. The U.S. government argues that the INA provision is broad enough to encompass this drug paraphernalia conviction and that the court of appeals rightfully deferred to the BIA.

The National Law Review reports that there is currently a split among circuits regarding interpreting this part of the INA in drug paraphernalia cases. The Court’s decision will likely resolve this split and impact not only who is deported, but the work of criminal defense attorneys when advising their clients about taking plea deals in misdemeanor drug cases. According to SCOTUS Blog, as evidenced by a spate of recent cases, “the Supreme Court has been reluctant to impose the harsh penalty of removal on lawful permanent residents convicted of small-time drug offenses.” The Court will issue an opinion in this matter in the coming months.