WASHINGTON — A single tablet of an anti-anxiety drug got Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo 10 days in jail in Harris County and a quick deportation to his native Mexico.
Too quick, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court said Monday in a ruling that could affect thousands of legal immigrants who face deportation over minor criminal records.
The lone Xanax tablet that Carachuri-Rosendo had without a prescription was his second minor drug crime, a year after he received 20 days in jail for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana.
When the federal government began deportation proceedings, it said Carachuri-Rosendo could not appeal for leniency because his second conviction amounted to a serious, or aggravated, felony. But Justice John Paul Stevens said that although local prosecutors could have charged Carachuri-Rosendo with being a repeat offender, they didn't, so he was not convicted of a crime that would have made his deportation automatic.
In the unanimous opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "The conviction itself is the starting place, not what might have or could have been charged."
"Carachuri-Rosendo, and others in his position, may now seek cancellation of removal and thereby avoid the harsh consequence of mandatory removal," Stevens wrote for the court. He noted that immigrants may still be deported in such instances but that immigration judges have the discretion to allow people to remain in this country.
Alina Das, a supervising attorney with the immigrant rights clinic at the New York University law school, said Congress intended automatic deportation to apply to drug traffickers, not people convicted of simple possession crimes.
Carachuri-Rosendo, in his early 30s, had been in the United States legally since he was 5. His wife, four children, mother and two sisters all are U.S. citizens, Stevens said.
Geoffrey Hoffman, a law professor at the University of Houston who represented Carachuri-Rosendo throughout the deportation proceedings, said after the ruling that the Supreme Court had viewed the government's argument as "too speculative and too far from removed from the intent of Congress."
Hoffman said he was unsure if Carachuri-Rosendo, who is thought to be living in Mexico, was aware of the ruling, which he called a "victory for due process."
He said attorneys were working with family members in the Houston area to locate Carachuri-Rosendo to determine the next step.
"My understanding is that we're going to do everything we can to follow through with his case and continue to represent him in terms of getting him the remedy he deserves," Hoffman said.
In other decisions Monday:
The court said that lower courts should look again at an appeal from a death row inmate in Florida whose lawyer missed the deadline for asking federal courts to stop his execution.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had ruled that the only way the deadline could be extended is if a defendant can prove that his lawyer showed "bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment, or so forth" instead of just being "grossly negligent."
"In our view, this standard is too rigid," said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the 7-2 judgment for the court.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia said Congress did not give justices the ability to extend the appeals deadline. He also said that in federal appeals, the client is responsible for his lawyer's actions.
"Thus, when a state habeas petitioner's appeal is filed too late because of attorney error, the petitioner is out of luck," Scalia said.
The court said it will review whether California must cut its prison population by nearly 40,000 inmates by December 2011 to improve medical and mental health care, escalating a legal battle that has been playing out for two decades.
The state argues that a panel of three federal judges overstepped its authority in ordering the cuts.
The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledges the state's 33 adult prisons are filled beyond their intended capacity but says it has been making progress to improve inmate care. The case involves lawsuits that stretch back to 1990.
At one point, a federal judge said incompetence and malfeasance in California's prison medical system was the cause of one inmate death per week.
Additional material from Hearst Newspapers.