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SCOTUS advises restraint in deportation over minor drug crimes

When it comes to immigrants and immigration, there's a staggering variety of issues for people to have political opinions about. Legal vs. unauthorized entry into the U.S. is the one you've probably heard the, but even legal, productive immigrants face a number of legal challenges, especially in criminal law.

One of those challenges is that even legal immigrants -- even green card holders -- can be deported for certain criminal convictions, and they needn't be violent felonies. Misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence count, for example. Federal law also allows for deportation of immigrants convicted of any offense "relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of title 21)," and that includes misdemeanors.

Could a misdemeanor conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia get you deported?

That question recently came before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involved a math professor with multiple degrees and a faculty position at a major university in another state. He was a lawful permanent resident and engaged to marry a U.S. citizen. He was leading a useful, productive life in the U.S. -- until he was caught with four suspicious-looking pills in a sock. The pills turned out to be Adderall, a prescription stimulant.

Presumably as the result of a plea bargain, the professor pled guilty to a misdemeanor, possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced to 359 days in jail and a year of probation, but the jail sentence was suspended. He successfully completed the probation, but then he was deported.

The Supreme Court reversed his deportation on several grounds, but the most interesting was this: A sock is a sock.

The professor's conviction wasn't for possession of Adderall, which is a deportable offense. His actual conviction was for possession of drug paraphernalia, which might be -- if he'd actually had any.

You see, the law authorizing deportation for controlled substance-related convictions uses the federal definitions of such offenses, which is what the phrase "(as defined in section 802 of title 21)" means.

Under federal law, the court said, hiding Adderall in a sock wouldn't qualify as a drug-paraphernalia offense.

The ruling signals an important message, both to prosecutors seeking deportation and to immigrants seeking to prevent it: Negotiate your plea bargains carefully. 

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