- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Supreme Court delved into arguments yesterday over the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes and whether to reinstate a death sentence in California.

Though the hallmark cases of the first full term for the current lineup of justices will come later, when the court hears disputes over abortion, race and the environment, the outcome of the first case on the schedule could affect thousands of immigrants who have run afoul of U.S. criminal law.

Justices closely questioned lawyers from both sides as the Bush administration asserted that immigrants convicted of state drug felonies are deportable even if the same crimes are considered only misdemeanors under federal law. Disagreeing were attorneys for two men, including a small-business owner who has been a permanent U.S. resident for 16 years.

Justices struggled with the meaning of the federal statute, with Justice Stephen G. Breyer at one point calling it “perfectly ambiguous.”

In the case involving the two immigrants, Jose Antonio Lopez, of Sioux Falls, S.D., was ordered deported after he pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting possession of cocaine. The crime is a felony under South Dakota state law, but only a misdemeanor under the federal Controlled Substances Act if it is a first offense for cocaine possession, as it was in Lopez’s case.

Still, an immigration judge and review panel, as well as a federal appeals court, all concluded that Lopez’s crime should be considered an “aggravated felony” that severely limits immigrants’ ability to fight off deportation, be granted asylum or become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Lopez has a wife and two children, and before the immigration judge’s ruling, he was released on good behavior after serving 15 months of a five-year prison sentence. His parole officer called him one of the best parolees he had ever had.

Lopez’s case is consolidated with that of Reymundo Toledo-Flores, a Mexican national who is objecting to having his latest conviction for illegally entering the United States classified as an aggravated felony.

The government is asking the court to rule against the immigrants. The American Bar Association and civil and immigrants rights groups want immigration judges to have greater discretion in deportation proceedings and object to categorizing relatively minor drug-possession crimes as aggravated felonies.

In the death-penalty case, California prosecutors want the court to reinstate the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman during a burglary.

Fernando Belmontes won a reversal of his death sentence when a federal appeals court said a jury instruction failed to inform the panel that he could live a productive life behind bars based on his good behavior during an earlier commitment to a California correctional facility for youth.

Belmontes beat Steacy McConnell to death with a dumbbell bar in the burglary of her Victor, Calif., home in 1981.

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