Justices ease deporting of car thieves

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court made it easier Wednesday for the government to deport thousands of legal immigrants who were involved in car thefts.

In a 9-0 decision, the justices said noncitizens who were convicted or pleaded guilty in California to the theft of a motor vehicle also are guilty of an “aggravated felony” under immigration law, even if they simply aided another person in the theft.

The ruling reverses a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which said California’s law was too broad and could brand some minor participants as criminals deserving of deportation.


Despite the focus on California’s law, the decision will apply across the country: The court noted that every state has a similar car-theft measure.

Government lawyers said the 9th Circuit’s ruling, which applied throughout the West, had blocked the deportation of more than 8,000 immigrants.

Under a strict 1996 immigration reform law, legal immigrants who have an aggravated felony on their records are to be automatically deported from the United States. Intended to rid the nation of immigrants who are criminals, the law calls for their deportation even if they have lived legally in this country for decades and have a job and family.

And because it triggers a deportation, the law has put a sharp focus on what crimes can be deemed an aggravated felony. Congress listed a series of such crimes, including a “theft offense” that can result in at least one year in prison.

Luis Duenas-Alvarez, a 32-year-old native of Peru and a permanent legal resident, pleaded guilty in Marin County in 2002 to taking a Honda Accord without the owner’s permission. He was sentenced to three years in state prison. As his term neared its end, federal authorities moved to deport him, saying his offense was an aggravated felony.

But the 9th Circuit blocked that move, ruling it was not clear whether Duenas-Alvarez intended to steal the car. It was one of a series of rulings in which the appeals court said California law on vehicle thefts was too broad because it applied to the participants in a theft, not just to the principal thief.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen G. Breyer disagreed with that analysis. In criminal law today, “one who aids or abets a theft falls, like the principal, within the scope” of the law against auto theft, he wrote. “We cannot agree that ... California’s law is somehow special,” he wrote.

The high court’s ruling was not a total victory for the government, however. The justices stopped short of deciding whether mere “joy riding” could be deemed an aggravated felony. They also left open the question of whether the deportation law should extend to persons who are an “accessory after the fact” to a car theft, including traveling in a stolen car. These issues can be decided later, the court said.

Wednesday’s ruling in Gonzales vs. Duenas-Alvarez is a setback for the immigrant, but not a final defeat.

“The decision expressly leaves open our ability to present additional arguments to the Court of Appeals,” said Christopher J. Meade, a New York lawyer who represented Duenas-Alvarez in the high court.

Last month, the Supreme Court leaned the opposite way in a related case involving legal immigrants who commit drug crimes.

In an 8-1 decision, the justices rejected automatic deportation for an immigrant who pleaded guilty to drug possession in South Dakota.

Reacting to Wednesday’s ruling, Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg said it was no surprise the court said those who aid or abet a theft are guilty of the crime of theft.

“In modern law, aiding and abetting is not a separate offense. This was mainly a rebuke to the 9th Circuit, which was clearly trying to find a way to save this guy from deportation,” Weisberg said. “Some of their decisions seems to have a neon ring around them that says, ‘Reverse this decision.’ ”