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New Ninth Circuit case partially overrules Young v. Holder, bringing hope to noncitizens with criminal convictions

The Ninth Circuit published its decision this week in Almanza-Arenas v. Holder, overturning (in part) the Court's previous decision in Young v. Holder that an individual convicted of a crime that may or may not be a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) must affirmatively establish through the record of conviction that the crime was not a CIMT in order to be eligible for certain immigration benefits.

The Court also clarified its stance on how to analyze a potential CIMT in terms of whether the criminal statute at issue is "divisible" or "indivisible," ultimately concluding that a statute that is not categorically a CIMT and that describes multiple "means" to committing the crime as opposed to "elements" is an indivisible statute and cannot be considered a CIMT.

Both holdings are extremely important for applicants for immigration relief, as discussed below.

Proving eligibility for cancellation of removal with an ambiguous record of conviction:

As previously discussed in this blog, individuals who have been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude may not be eligible for certain immigration benefits, such as cancellation of removal. In Young, the Court held that for applicants convicted under criminal statutes that are overbroad (statutes that describe conduct that can be construed as either involving moral turpitude or not), the burden is on the applicant to show the immigration judge that his or her particular conduct did not involve moral turpitude.

Young created quite a problem for many applicants for cancellation of removal who, despite being otherwise eligible for the benefit, could not prove that their conduct fell into the "non-moral turpitude" camp because the record of their conviction did not contain enough information.

However, the Ninth Circuit now finds that its previous decision in Young was incorrect, as it squarely contradicts the United States Supreme Court decision in Moncrieffe v. Holder. In Moncrieffe, the Supreme Court held that ambiguity in criminal statutes must be construed in the noncitizen's favor, and that noncitizens should not have to prove that they were not convicted of a deportable crime such as a CIMT in order to be eligible for relief.

Almanza-Arenas thus opens the door for applicants who were previously denied a benefit such as cancellation of removal or unable to apply for the benefit merely because the record of their criminal conviction did not clearly show that their conduct was not conduct involving moral turpitude.

Statutes describing multiple "means" to engaging in the crime, not "elements", are indivisible:

The Court also discusses how to analyze whether or not a crime is a CIMT when the statute describes multiple types of criminal conduct, some that may be considered a CIMT and some that may not.

In general, this analysis begins by comparing the criminal statute at issue to the generic definition of the crime that is considered to be a CIMT. If the statute at issue includes the same elements (or narrower) as the generic definition, then the statute is categorically a CIMT.

However, if the statute at issue has more or different elements than the generic definition, then it is considered "overbroad" and not categorically a CIMT. The analysis then continues to whether the statute is divisible or not. If divisible, that means the statute can be broken down into some conduct that can be considered a CIMT, and some that cannot, and that we can look to the record of conviction for the facts of the specific crime and decide if it qualifies as a CIMT or not.

If the statute is indivisible, that means it cannot be broken down as above, and thus a criminal statute that is both overbroad and indivisible is NOT a CIMT no matter what the record of conviction shows.

In Almanza-Arenas, the Court discusses the specific California crime of "joyriding," ultimately deciding that it cannot be a CIMT because it is an indivisible statute. In coming to this conclusion, the Court distinguishes between criminal statutes that describe alternative "means" to committing a crime and those that have alternative "elements" of the crime. A statute that provides alternative "means" to committing the crime is one where a jury need not decide by which means the actor did in fact commit the crime, whereas a statute that provides alternative "elements" is one that essentially sets out many alternative crimes within the statute, and the jury must decide which one applies.

The Court held that statutes that describe alternative "means" are indivisible because the jury is not instructed to pick by which "means" the crime was committed. Joyriding in California fits within this category because it describes taking a vehicle "with intent either to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner thereof." Intent to permanently deprive the owner would be a CIMT, but intent to temporarily do so would not. Because the jury need not decide whether the defendant's intent was permanent or temporary deprivation, but rather only that he or she took the vehicle intentionally, the joyriding statute is overbroad and indivisible, and thus not a CIMT.

This framework for analyzing overbroad criminal statutes may be extremely useful for applicants for immigration relief with criminal histories. Noncitizens with criminal convictions should discuss the potential positive effects that these holdings may have on their cases with an attorney.

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