(CN) - The government cannot deport a Mexican who has been living in the United States for nearly three decades based on a second minor drug offense: possession of a single anti-anxiety pill without a prescription, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The high court unanimously reversed the 5th Circuit's ruling that upheld the deportation of Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, who came to the United States in 1983, when he was 5 years old. He is a legal permanent resident, and his wife and four children are all U.S. citizens.
"Like so many in this country, Carachuri-Rosendo has gotten into some trouble with our drug laws," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
In 2004 Carachuri-Rosendo received 20 days in prison for possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The next year he pleaded no contest to possessing a single tablet of the anti-anxiety medication Xanax without a prescription and received 10 days in jail.
Under Texas law, Carachuri-Rosendo could have been given an enhanced sentence for the second offense, because he had been convicted of a similar crime, but the Texas prosecutor chose not to charge him as a recidivist.
However, the government argued
that Carachuri-Rosendo's second offense triggered deportation, because he could have been charged with an aggravated felony under federal immigration law.
The 5th Circuit agreed, ruling that a simple drug possession offense is always a felony after the defendant has been convicted of a similar crime.
But the Supreme Court emphatically rejected the government's hypothetical approach.
"[W]e are to look to the conviction itself as our starting place, not to what might have or could have been charged," Stevens wrote.
"Carachuri-Rosendo was not actually 'convicted' of a drug possession offense committed 'after a prior conviction ... has become final,' and no subsequent development can undo that history."