WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ruled that a Prince George’s County immigrant cannot challenge his deportation for armed robbery even though the law allowed him to do so at the time he was convicted.
A divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even though the law changed two years after Dean Alphonso Chambers was convicted, it could be applied retroactively to his case.
Chambers, a Jamaican native who moved to this country when he was 2, was 17 years old when he was convicted of armed robbery in 1994 in Prince George’s County. He faced up to 20 years in prison on the charge, but was sentenced to four years with all but 18 months suspended.
At that time, convicted immigrants could apply for a waiver of their deportation orders, as long as they had not committed an “aggravated felony.” It was defined then as a crime of violence that resulted in a sentence of five years or more.
But Congress in 1996 changed the definition of aggravated felony to include any crime of violence that resulted in a sentence of one year or more. Chambers’ crime fit the bill and the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings to deport him under the new law in 1997.
Chambers argued that the government was unfairly changing the rules in the middle of the game. He also argued that it would be like punishing him twice because the change forces him to face new legal consequences for a crime in which he had already served the sentence.
But an INS board and a federal district judge disagreed. In a published decision released Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court let those decisions stand.
Judge William B. Traxler Jr. said in the majority ruling that Chambers’ case was different from a recent case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the law could not be applied retroactively to an immigrant who pleaded guilty in exchange for a four-year sentence.
Chambers was offered a plea deal that would have given him a four-year sentence, guaranteeing that he would have been eligible for a waiver under the old rules. But he rejected the deal.
Traxler said that “by rolling the dice and going to trial” Chambers demonstrated that he was not relying on getting a waiver. He said that Chambers is not facing new legal consequences, because when he chose to go to trial he was facing the possibility of deportation and the new law does not change that.
In his dissent, Judge Joseph R. Goodwin said that Chambers has already been convicted and sentenced for his crime, so denying him the chance to apply for a waiver saddles him with new legal consequences.
An attorney for Chambers challenged the ruling, saying Congress did not intend that deportation waivers were only for those who plea bargain. But while he was disappointed with the decision, Christopher J. Meade said Chambers’ lawyers were “encouraged by the strong dissent from Judge Goodwin.”
He could not say whether Chambers will appeal the decision.
A spokesman for INS said the decision will likely have little effect on deportation hearings, since fewer than 1,000 legal immigrants nationwide would likely find themselves in Chambers’ situation.