An unconstitutionally vague immigration law has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of Sessions v. Dimaya centered on a burglary conviction that that an Immigration Judge determined was an “aggravated felony.” If convicted of an aggravated felony, Dimaya would be subject to mandatory detention and automatic removal from the United States.
“Crime of Violence” Under Immigration Law
Aggravated felonies encompass many different types of offenses, including those deemed “crimes of violence.” Before being struck down, crimes of violence were defined under both an “elements clause” and “residual clause.” If the elements of a crime did not meet the standard to deem it a crime of violence, the Immigration Judge could still determine it a crime of violence under the residual clause, which vaguely classified as a crime of violence any felony that “by its nature, involves a substantial risk” of “physical force against a person or property.”
Johnson v. United States
The U.S. Supreme Court had recently heard a separate case while Dimaya was on appeal, which struck down the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act finding it was also unconstitutionally vague. It defined violent crime as that which “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Theses residual clauses in Dimaya and Johnson had allowed a court to find almost all felony convictions to be aggravated felonies, despite there being no actual proof that there had been any risk or use of force.
The Dimaya Ruling
Justice Gorsuch joined with the Court’s liberal justices in the 5-4 decision, which should benefit lawful permanent residents who live in the U.S. legally but have criminal convictions on their record. The ruling will limit the types of crimes that could justify mandatory detention and removal from the United States. This ruling also helps defense attorneys and their clients, as the vagueness of the statutes had made the job harder for defense counsel to confidently explain the immigration consequences of certain felony convictions. This ruling won’t mean that deportion is not a risk, as felony convictions typically also fall under a different category of deportable offenses termed “crimes involving moral turpitude.” However, the ruling helps clarify the direct immigraton implications of many offenses.