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Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions

United States Supreme Court

May 30, 2017

JUAN ESQUIVEL-QUINTANA, PETITIONER
v.
v. JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS, III, ATTORNEY GENERAL

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

          Argued February 27, 2017

         Petitioner, a citizen of Mexico and lawful permanent resident of the United States, pleaded no contest in a California court to a statutory rape offense criminalizing "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator." Cal. Penal Code Ann. §261.5(c). For purposes of that offense, California defines "minor" as "a person under the age of 18." §261.5(a). Based on this conviction, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which makes removable "[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony, " 8 U.S.C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), including "sexual abuse of a minor, " §1101(a)(43)(A). An Immigration Judge ordered petitioner removed to Mexico. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed that petitioner's crime constituted sexual abuse of a minor and dismissed his appeal. A divided Court of Appeals denied his petition for review.

         Held:

In the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of "sexual abuse of a minor" requires the age of the victim to be less than 16. Pp. 2-12.

         (a) Under the categorical approach employed to determine whether an alien's conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony, the Court asks whether " 'the state statute defining the crime of conviction' categorically fits within the 'generic' federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony." Moncrieffe v. Holder, 569 U.S. 184, 190. Petitioner's state conviction is thus an "aggravated felony" only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor. Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 137. Pp. 2-3.

         (b) The least of the acts criminalized by Cal. Penal Code §261.5(c) would be consensual sexual intercourse between a victim who is almost 18 and a perpetrator who just turned 21. Regardless of the actual facts of the case, this Court presumes that petitioner's conviction was based on those acts. Pp. 3-4.

         (c) In the context of statutory rape offenses that criminalize sexual intercourse based solely on the ages of the participants, the generic federal definition of "sexual abuse of a minor" requires that the victim be younger than 16. The Court begins, as always, with the text. Pp. 4-7.

         (1) Congress added sexual abuse of a minor to the INA in 1996. At that time, the ordinary meaning of "sexual abuse" included "the engaging in sexual contact with a person who is below a specified age or who is incapable of giving consent because of age or mental or physical incapacity." Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law 454. By providing that the abuse must be "of a minor, " the INA focuses on age, rather than mental or physical incapacity. Accordingly, to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor, the statute of conviction must prohibit certain sexual acts based at least in part on the age of the victim. Statutory rape laws, which are one example of this category of crimes, generally provide that an older person may not engage in sexual intercourse with a younger person under the "age of consent." Reliable dictionaries indicate that the "generic" age of consent in 1996 was 16, and it remains so today. Pp. 4-6.

         (2) The Government argues that sexual abuse of a minor includes any conduct that is illegal, involves sexual activity, and is directed at a person younger than 18. For support, it points to the 1990 Black's Law Dictionary, which defined sexual abuse of a minor as "[i]llegal sex acts performed against a minor by a parent, guardian, relative, or acquaintance" and defined "[m]inor" as "[a]n infant or person who is under the age of legal competence, " which in "most states" was "18." But the generic federal offense does not correspond to the Government's definition, for three reasons. First, the Government's definition is inconsistent with its own dictionary's requirement that a special relationship of trust exist between the victim and offender. Second, in the statutory rape context, "of a minor" refers to the age of consent, not the age of legal competence. Third, the Government's definition turns the categorical approach on its head by defining the generic federal offense as whatever is illegal under the law of the State of conviction. Pp. 6-7.

         (d) The structure of the INA, a related federal statute, and evidence from state criminal codes confirm that, for a statutory rape offense based solely on the age of the participants to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA, the victim must be younger than 16. The INA lists sexual abuse of a minor as an "aggravated" felony, §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), and lists it in the same subparagraph as "murder" and "rape, " §1101(a)(43)(A), suggesting that it encompasses only especially egregious felonies. A different statute, 18 U.S.C. §2243, criminalizes "[s]exual abuse of a minor or ward." Section 2243 was amended to protect anyone under age 16 in the same omnibus law that added sexual abuse of a minor to the INA, suggesting that Congress understood that phrase to cover victims under (but not over) age 16. Finally, a significant majority of state criminal codes set the age of consent at 16 for statutory rape offenses predicated exclusively on the age of the participants. Pp. 7-11.

         (e) This Court does not decide whether the generic crime of sexual abuse of a minor requires a particular age differential between the victim and the perpetrator or whether it encompasses sexual intercourse involving victims over 16 that is abusive because of the nature of the relationship between the participants. P. 11.

         (f) Because the statute, read in context, unambiguously forecloses the Board's interpretation of sexual abuse of a minor, neither the rule of lenity nor Chevron deference applies. Pp. 11—12.

810 F.3d 1019, reversed.

          THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except GORSUCH, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

          OPINION

          THOMAS JUSTICE

         The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, provides that "[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony after admission" to the United States may be removed from the country by the Attorney General. 8 U.S.C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). One of the many crimes that constitutes an aggravated felony under the INA is "sexual abuse of a minor." §1101(a)(43)(A). A conviction for sexual abuse of a minor is an aggravated felony regardless of whether it is for a "violation of Federal or State law." §1101(a)(43). The INA does not expressly define sexual abuse of a minor.

         We must decide whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA. We hold that it does not.

         I

         Petitioner Juan Esquivel-Quintana is a native and citizen of Mexico. He was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident in 2000. In 2009, he pleaded no contest in the Superior Court of California to a statutory rape offense: "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator, " Cal. Penal Code Ann. §261.5(c) (West 2014); see also §261.5(a) ("Unlawful sexual intercourse is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person who is not the spouse of the perpetrator, if the person is a minor"). For purposes of that offense, California defines "minor" as "a person under the age of 18 years." Ibid.

         The Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against petitioner based on that conviction. An Immigration Judge concluded that the conviction qualified as "sexual abuse of a minor, " 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(A), and ordered petitioner removed to Mexico. The Board of Immigration Appeals (Board) dismissed his appeal. 26 I. & N. Dec. 469 (2015). "[F]or a statutory rape offense involving a 16- or 17-year-old victim" to qualify as "'sexual abuse of a minor, '" it reasoned, "the statute must require a meaningful age difference between the victim and the perpetrator." Id., at 477. In its view, the 3-year age difference required by Cal. Penal Code §261.5(c) was meaningful. Id., at 477. Accordingly, the Board concluded that petitioner's crime of conviction was an aggravated felony, making him removable under the INA. Ibid. A divided Court of Appeals denied Esquivel-Quintana's petition for review, deferring to the Board's interpretation of sexual abuse of a minor under Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). 810 F.3d 1019 (CA6 2016); see also id., at 1027 (Sutton, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). We granted certiorari, 580 U.S.__(2016), and now reverse.

         II

         Section 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii) makes aliens removable based on the nature of their convictions, not based on their actual conduct. See Mellouli v. Lynch, 575 U.S.__, __ (2015) (slip op., at 7). Accordingly, to determine whether an alien's conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony under that section, we "employ a categorical approach by looking to the statute ... of conviction, rather than to the specific facts underlying the crime." Kawashima v. Holder, 565 U.S. 478, 483 (2012); see, e.g., Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, 549 U.S. 183, 186 (2007) (applying the categorical approach set forth in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575 (1990), to the INA). Under that approach, we ask whether "'the state statute defining the crime of conviction' categorically fits within the 'generic' federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony." Moncrieffe v. Holder, 569 U.S. 184, 190 (2013) (quoting Duenas-Alvarez, supra, at 186). In other words, we presume that the state conviction "rested upon . . . the least of th[e] acts" criminalized by the statute, and then we determine whether that conduct would fall within the federal definition of the crime. Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 137 (2010); see also Moncrieffe, supra, at 191 (focusing "on the minimum conduct criminalized by the state statute").[1]Petitioner's state conviction is thus an "aggravated felony" under the INA only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor.

         A

         Because Cal. Penal Code §261.5(c) criminalizes "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator" and defines a minor as someone under age 18, the conduct criminalized under this provision would be, at a minimum, consensual sexual intercourse between a victim who is almost 18 and a perpetrator who just turned 21. Regardless of the actual facts of petitioner's crime, we must presume that his conviction was based on acts that were no more criminal than that. If those acts do not constitute sexual abuse of a minor under the INA, then petitioner was not convicted of an aggravated felony and is not, on that basis, removable.

         Petitioner concedes that sexual abuse of a minor under the INA includes some statutory rape offenses. But he argues that a statutory rape offense based solely on the partners' ages (like the one here) is "'abuse'" "only when the younger partner is under 16." Reply Brief 2. Because the California statute criminalizes sexual intercourse when the victim is up to 17 years ...


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