WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist, ruled on Tuesday that driving while intoxicated is not a crime of violence that would warrant deportation.
The court unanimously rejected the U.S. government’s position in the case of Josue Leocal, a Haitian who was deported after pleading guilty to two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol and causing serious bodily injury.
Rehnquist, who is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for his recently diagnosed thyroid cancer, was not at the court to announce the opinion. He has been absent from the bench since Nov. 1, but said he would work on court matters while at home.
Leocal immigrated to the United States in 1980 and became a lawful permanent resident in 1987. In 2000, the Miami resident was charged for an accident that injured two people.
He was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison. In November 2000, while he was serving his sentence, U.S. immigration authorities began deportation proceedings against him.
They said his conviction was a “crime of violence” and an “aggravated felony” that made him eligible for deportation under the immigration laws.
Leocal was deported to Haiti in November 2002.
An immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals and a U.S. appeals court all ruled for the government in the case.
Rehnquist disagreed. He said state laws for driving under the influence, which do not require guilty intent or a showing of negligence in operating the vehicle, do not qualify as crimes of violence.
“Drunk driving is a nationwide problem, as evidenced by the efforts to legislatures to prohibit such conduct and impose appropriate penalties. But this fact does not warrant our shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit” he wrote in the 11-page opinion.
Charles Lane, Washington Post, Nov. 10
Issuing his first written opinion since the court announced Oct. 25 that he has thyroid cancer, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that drunken driving, even when it results in serious harm to others, does not entail the kind of specific criminal intent that Congress meant to punish when it passed a law in 1996 requiring the removal of all immigrants who commit “crimes of violence.”
It is a defeat for the Bush administration, which had argued that drunken driving could be considered a crime of violence because even the unintentional use of force, as in the wild maneuvers of an intoxicated driver, could be construed as violence.
Immigrants rights groups estimate that hundreds of noncitizens may have been deported for drunken-driving offenses since 1996, when the Clinton administration first made the argument that such felonies should be considered deportable crimes.
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