WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today spared millions of legal immigrants from the threat of deportation for a drunken driving accident.
In an opinion written by ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the high court disagreed with the Bush administration and ruled drunken driving is not a "crime of violence," even if others are injured in an accident.
A crime of violence refers to a deliberate use of force to hurt another person, not an accident that results in an injury, Rehnquist said.
The 9-0 decision limits the impact of a 1996 immigration reform law. According to that law, immigrants, including those who have lived legally in the United States for many years, shall be deported if they commit a serious crime, including any "crime of violence."
In most states, drunken driving that results in death or injury is a serious crime that can send the motorist to jail for a year or more. The question for the Supreme Court was whether the motorist would also be deported after he left jail.
The law defined a crime of violence as the "use of physical force against another," and Justice Department lawyers argued that accidents were included. "Someone who drunkenly (though unintentionally) crashes his car into another has used physical force against his victim," they argued.
But Rehnquist and his colleagues disagreed. They said that in the normal use of language, the phrase "use of force" implies an intent. "Thus, a person would 'use ... physical force against' another when pushing him; however, would not ordinarily say a person 'uses ... physical force against' another by stumbling and falling into him," the chief justice wrote.
The ruling came in the case of Josue Leocal, a Haitian immigrant who had lived in south Florida nearly 20 years and was a father of four. In January 2000, he drove through a red light after midnight in the Miami area and struck another car. Two people were injured in the accident, and Leocal later pleaded guilty to drunken driving. He was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
While he was behind bars, the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved to deport him to Haiti. It said drunken driving that results in an injury is a crime of violence, and an "aggravated felony" that demands deportation. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed, and Leocal was shipped to Haiti two years ago. He now is free to return.
But the Supreme Court voted to hear his appeal in the case of Leocal vs. Ashcroft because lower courts were split on the issue. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the West Coast had refused to deport lawful immigrants for drunken driving violations.
The United States had 11.4 million immigrants who are legal permanent residents, the Department of Homeland Security said in 2002. By some estimates, the nation has 20 million legal immigrants counting all those who are here on short-term visas.