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Gonzalez v. Sessions

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 27, 2018

JOSE SANTOS GUZMAN GONZALEZ, Petitioner,
v.
JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS III, Attorney General, Respondent.

          Argued: March 20, 2018

          On Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals.

         ARGUED:

          Japheth Nthautha Matemu, MATEMU LAW OFFICE, PC, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Petitioner.

          Dawn S. Conrad, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Respondent.

         ON BRIEF:

          Chad A. Readler, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Derek C. Julius, Assistant Director, Patricia E. Bruckner, Office of Immigration Litigation, Civil Division, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Respondent.

          Before WYNN, FLOYD, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          WYNN, Circuit Judge:

         Petitioner Jose Guzman Gonzalez entered the United States illegally in the early 2000s. Several years later, Guzman pleaded guilty in North Carolina state court to misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana. The state court withheld adjudication of guilt, instead entering a verdict of prayer for judgment continued and assessing Guzman $100 in court costs.

         The question presented for our review is purely legal: does the imposition of $100 in court costs, assessed attendant to a prayer for judgment continued under North Carolina law, qualify as a "conviction" within the meaning of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (the "Act")? 8 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq.; id. § 1101(a)(48)(A). The Board of Immigration Appeals (the "Board") held that it does. We disagree. Accordingly, we grant Guzman's petition for review, reverse the Board's Order, and remand Guzman's case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I.

         Guzman left his native El Salvador and entered the United States illegally, likely in December 2000. In August 2002, Guzman received a North Carolina citation for misdemeanor possession of up to one-half of an ounce of marijuana, in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(d)(4). Three months later, Guzman pleaded guilty to the offense in the state district court, sitting in Wake County, North Carolina.[1] At that time, the state court entered a verdict of "prayer for judgment continued" and assessed $100 in court costs. The court did not impose restitution or order Guzman to pay a fine.

         Thirteen years later-in 2015-the Department of Homeland Security ("Homeland Security") charged Guzman with removability from the United States, a charge that Guzman conceded. However, Guzman applied for cancellation of removal as a non-permanent resident under 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(b)(1). Homeland Security orally moved to pretermit the application, arguing that Guzman's prior offense for misdemeanor marijuana possession barred cancellation because it satisfied the relevant federal statutory definition of "conviction" for a controlled substance offense. See 8 U.S.C. §§ 1229b(b)(1)(C), 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(II), 1101(48)(A).

         The Immigration Judge presiding over Guzman's removal proceedings granted Homeland Security's oral motion. In particular, the Immigration Judge determined that the state-court resolution of Guzman's misdemeanor possession charge satisfied the Act's statutory definition of "conviction" because Guzman had both pleaded guilty to the underlying offense and "paid $100 in costs" attendant to his plea. A.R. 41. As the sole support for this determination, the Immigration Judge cited a 2008 opinion issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals concluding that costs and surcharges imposed in the criminal sentencing context satisfy the Act's relevant definitions. Id. (citing In re Cabrera, 24 I. & N. Dec. 459, 462 (B.I.A. 2008)).

         Guzman appealed the Immigration Judge's determination to the Board. The Board summarized and agreed with the Immigration Judge's analysis, also citing Cabrera as its sole support, and therefore dismissed ...


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