Mathis v. United States:  Supreme Court Decision Places Limits on the Consequences of a State Criminal Conviction


By Attorney Eric R. Welsh

CAJ0035BCrimes have consequences, and for non-citizens, those consequences can sometimes be much more severe than a sentence and probation.  Immigrants with criminal convictions can face deportation from the U.S., or substantial obstacles to entering the U.S. or applying for benefits like a green card or citizenship.

Nonetheless, not every crime triggers an immigration consequence.  The U.S. immigration laws are federal laws, and most of the crime-related grounds of deportation or inadmissibility are defined in relation to federal crimes.  When a person is convicted of violating a state law and convicted in a state court, that conviction will only result in an immigration consequence if the offense committed falls within a federal definition.  When the state law defines a crime more broadly than the federal law, there is a mismatch, and possibly a way to avoid the immigration consequence.

For example, a person who is convicted in California of “burglary” has not necessarily committed the federal (“generic”) offense of “burglary” because the California statute penalizes any “entry” into a location with intent to commit a crime, while the generic federal definition requires “unlawful” entry.  The issue, then, is whether an immigration fact-finder can look beyond the definition of the state crime to determine whether the defendant actually committed the generic offense (i.e., whether the California defendant’s entry was, in fact, “unlawful”).

In a series of recent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided useful guidance to determine when a conviction will trigger an immigration consequence.  Most recently, in Mathis v. United States, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that, except in rare instances, a state conviction for an offense that is defined more broadly in state law than the “generic” federal definition cannot be the basis for an adverse federal consequence.  In Mathis, the Supreme Court analyzed the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which imposes a mandatory sentence enhancement on a defendant who has three prior convictions “for a violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.”  The defendant, Richard Mathis, had five prior convictions for burglary in Iowa.  The Iowa burglary statute is broader than the federal definition, penalizing unlawful entry into “any building, structure, [or] land, water, or air vehicle,” while the generic federal definition is limited to unlawful entry into a “building or other structure.”  The criminal court found that because Mr. Mathis had, in fact, burglarized buildings, it did not matter that the Iowa state statute was overly broad, and applied the mandatory sentence enhancement to Mr. Mathis’s conviction.

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed, finding that the sentence enhancement did not apply.  The Court held that because the elements of the Iowa crime of “burglary” are broader than the elements of the generic offense, the convictions for Iowa burglary could not predicate a sentence enhancement, regardless of whether the defendant had, in fact, committed acts that would satisfy the generic definition.  The Court explained that where a state statute provides different, alternative means of fulfilling one or more of a crime’s elements, the judge tasked with the duty of deciding whether a sentence enhancement applies must not engage in exploring alternative factual scenarios.  Because the “elements” of a crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in order to sustain a conviction, it would be fundamentally unfair to impose a consequence on a defendant based on “facts” that did not need to be proven in order to obtain the conviction in the first place.

This ruling has significant importance in the immigration context.  Many criminal grounds of inadmissibility or deportability require an immigration agency to prove that an immigrant committed a generic, federal offense.  When an immigrant is actually convicted of a state crime that is similar to but actually broader than a generic, federal offense, the adjudicator may be tempted to look beyond the words in the statute and try to determine what the immigrant actually did.  In Mathis, the Supreme Court cautions that this kind of inquiry is not appropriate.  This would require additional fact-finding that was not necessary to convict the person in state court, and may be extremely unreliable.

Immigration consequences of criminal convictions can be severe, and because of that severity, the Supreme Court provides guidance to strictly limit those consequences, especially in the context of grounds of deportation to remove a person from the United States.  All persons in the United States have rights and protections under the constitution and the laws, regardless of immigration status.  Immigrants with any criminal history should consult with an experienced immigration attorney to ensure that those rights are exercised.