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Supreme Court rules federal government can deport noncitizens who obstruct justice

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that noncitizens who obstruct justice, regardless if there’s a pending investigation or not, must be deported in accordance with federal law.

At issue are two cases on which appeals courts for the Fourth and Ninth circuits issued different rulings related to deporting noncitizens who committed felonies and appealed orders for their removal. Federal law established by Congress requires noncitizens convicted of an aggravated felony, including offenses “relating to obstruction of justice,” to be deported.

In two separate cases, Jean Francois Pugin (4th Circuit) and Fernando Cordero-Garcia (9th Circuit), permanent residents who’d lived in the U.S. for decades, committed aggravated felonies, including an “offense relating to obstruction of justice.” In Pugin’s case, he pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to a felony. In Cordero-Garcia’s case, he was convicted for dissuading a witness from reporting a crime. They each received prison sentences and removal notices for deportation.

They both appealed, arguing their convictions weren’t based on pending investigations or proceedings so they weren’t guilty of obstructing justice and therefore couldn’t be deported. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Pugin obstructed justice regardless if there was a pending investigation or not. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled a pending investigation or proceeding was necessary to meet the criteria for an obstruction charge.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit and reversed and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

In Pugin v. Garland, in a 6-3 vote, the court ruled that obstruction of justice “often ‘most effective’ when it prevents ‘an investigation or proceeding from commencing in the first place.’”

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Elena Kagan.

“In two immigration proceedings, noncitizens Fernando Cordero-Garcia and Jean Francois Pugin were determined removable from the United States on the ground that they had convictions for aggravated felonies – namely, offenses ‘relating to obstruction of justice,’” the ruling states. “On appeal, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Cordero-Garcia’s state conviction for dissuading a witness from reporting a crime did not constitute an offense ‘relating to obstruction of justice’ because the state offense did not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending. By contrast, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Pugin’s state conviction for accessory after the fact constituted an offense ‘relating to obstruction of justice’ even if the state offense did not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending.

The court held, “An offense may ‘relat[e] to obstruction of justice’ under §1101(a)(43)(S) even if the offense does not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending. Federal law provides that noncitizens convicted of a federal or state crime constituting an ‘aggravated felony’ are removable from the United States. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii).”

It also cites a brief from the federal government, stating, “Individuals can obstruct the process of justice even when an investigation or proceeding is not pending. Indeed, obstruction of justice is often ‘most effective’ when it prevents ‘an investigation or proceeding from commencing in the first place’ Brief for Attorney General 15.”

The court also said it declined “to adopt an interpretation of the statute that would exclude many common obstruction offenses from the definition of aggravated felony under §1101(a)(43)(S)” and said the statute in question “covers offenses having a connection with obstruction of justice – which surely covers common obstruction offenses that can occur when an investigation or proceeding is not pending.”

It also held, “Pugin’s and Cordero-Garcia’s contrary arguments lack merit.”

Sotomayor argued the opposite, saying, “From early American laws, to dictionaries, to modern federal and state obstruction statutes, interference with an ongoing investigation or proceeding is at the core of what it means to be ‘an offense relating to obstruction of justice.’”

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