Federal Court Decision Limits Impact of Maryland Theft Conviction on Immigration Status21 Aug 2018
The Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals recently ruled in Levya Martinez v. Sessions, that a theft conviction under Maryland law is not a “crime involving moral turpitude” (CIMT). A conviction of a CIMT can have a serious impact on a foreign national’s eligibility for certain immigration benefits, including the ability to become a lawful permanent resident or U.S. citizen, or even to be able to remain in the United States.
The Murthy Law Firm had no involvement in this court case. The information shared here is based on public records.
Background on Levya Martinez
The plaintiff in this case, Martinez, was a national of Mexico who had been convicted of theft three times in Maryland. After her third conviction, the plaintiff was detained by U.S. immigration officials to be removed (i.e. deported) to her home country. The plaintiff applied for cancellation of removal, but the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) determined that the conviction of theft under Maryland law was a CIMT, and she was ineligible, therefore, for the relief she sought. The plaintiff appealed this decision and ultimately argued that the Maryland theft statute was not a CIMT to the Fourth Circuit.
Immigration Consequences of a CIMT Conviction
Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) lists various grounds upon which a person can be found inadmissible to the United States. These provisions in the INA can affect one’s application for a nonimmigrant (temporary) or immigrant (permanent) status. They also apply when one arrives at a U.S. port of entry and seeks to enter the country, and can also affect a person’s ability to stay in the U.S. Among the various grounds of inadmissibility in Section 212, there are various criminal grounds.
One of these grounds of inadmissibility is if the individual is convicted of, or admits to having committed, a crime involving moral turpitude. Determining whether or not a particular crime constitutes a CIMT, however, is not always clear, and the definition of that term has evolved over the years through case law. While there is no singular definition for a CIMT, courts have understood these crimes to be inherently base, vile, or depraved.
Categorical Approach / Modified Categorical Approach to Analyze CIMTs
To determine whether a crime is a CIMT, depending upon how the statute is written, the courts may use what is referred to as the categorical approach. Under the categorical approach, a court looks at the elements in a criminal statute, instead of looking at a person’s actions. If every possible action a person could take under the statue in order to be convicted of the crime involves moral turpitude, then the crime would categorically qualify as a CIMT. If, however, under the statute a person could still be convicted of the offense on the basis of actions that do not involve moral turpitude, then the crime is not one that categorically involves moral turpitude.
If the crime does not categorically involve moral turpitude, a court may apply the so-called modified categorical approach. In the modified categorical approach, a court is permitted to look at certain specific documents relating to the individual’s criminal conviction, such as the indictment, complaint, or written plea agreement, to determine what “part” of a criminal statute the individual was actually convicted pursuant to. However, in order for a court to apply the modified categorical approach, the criminal statute must be “divisible” – it must contain separate sections, relating to different criminal offenses. If the statute does not contain multiple different crimes, it is not divisible, and the modified categorical approach cannot be utilized.
Maryland Theft Statute Not Divisible; Under Categorical Approach Not a CIMT
The Maryland crime at issue in this case consolidates theft as one crime; therefore, it was not divisible. One of the ways an individual can be convicted of theft in Maryland is by temporarily borrowing property with the intention of returning it to the owner in the future. The Court found that this action did not categorically involve moral turpitude and, therefore, a conviction of theft in Maryland was not categorically a CIMT.
This decision may come as good news for individuals based in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals jurisdiction, particularly for a theft under Maryland law. However, any persons who have had past violations of the law, including a theft conviction under Maryland law, could still be impacted negatively. This is especially important for individuals applying for U.S. citizenship, who are required to show good moral character. A noncitizen charged with any crime should seek competent advice from both a criminal attorney and an immigration attorney before making decisions on how to proceed.
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