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Noncitizens Facing Deportation for Minor Offenses Can Now Seek Jury Trials

Immigrants facing removal proceedings for misdemeanor charges can now have their cases decided in jury trials after the New York Court of Appeals ruled 5-2 on Tuesday. The ruling stems from the case of Saylor Suazo, a noncitizen who stayed in the United States even after his visa had already expired. He faced trial for several charges of assault and harassment against the mother of his children, whom he threw to the floor, choked, and beat.

These charges were reduced to class-B misdemeanors, which are punishable by 90-day sentences and can usually be tried without a jury. Suazo, however, still faced deportation—a factor the trial judge did not feel entitled him to a jury trial.

Suazo was found guilty of the assault charge in 2012, a decision that was later affirmed by an appellate panel and then reversed 5-2 at the New York Court of Appeals.

Judge Leslie Stein, one of the judges in the majority, agreed that deportation is a consequence of having a state conviction and pointed out that noncitizens tend to face removal even for class-B misdemeanors. She, however, maintains that only Congress holds the authority to decide whether deportation is an appropriate penalty for federal and state criminal law convictions.

“A noncitizen who is adjudicated deportable may first face additional detention, followed by the often-greater toll of separation from friends, family, home, and livelihood by actual forced removal from the country and return to a land to which that person may have no significant ties,” Stein wrote in the Court’s 22-page opinion.

Judge Michael Garcia, who, along with Judge Rowan Wilson, dissented from the majority’s decision, explained that petty crimes cannot be transported to more serious ones covered by the Sixth Amendment simply because of the threat of deportation. He held that the Supreme Court needs to hear and decide on the matter.

Additionally, Garcia warned that the ruling not only establishes special treatment for removal cases but also sets the stage for other class-B misdemeanor cases to demand jury trials.

“It is doubtful that importing federal immigration law into the penalty analysis was something the Supreme Court intended when it made the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury for ‘serious’ offenses applicable to the states,” Garcia argued. “In the end, the Supreme Court has the ultimate authority to settle this issue,” he posited, running contrary to the majority’s view that the ball is in the legislative’s court.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office believes that the ruling goes against a Supreme Court precedent, adding that they intend to bring the case to the high court given the Court of Appeals ruling.

Mark Zeno, who represented Suazo out of the Center for Appellate Litigation, lauded the Court’s decision, adding that the D.C. Circuit has also upheld the right to jury trials for noncitizens facing deportation.

If you, or a loved one, are facing a similar immigration case and need assistance, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the legal team of the Lyttle Law Firm. Call our offices today at (512) 215-5225 to schedule a consultation with immigration attorney Daniella Lyttle.

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