updated 11/9/2004 5:02:58 PM ET 2004-11-09T22:02:58

A drunken driving accident is not a “crime of violence” allowing the government to deport a permanent resident, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in the first of three cases this term delineating the rights of immigrants.

In an 11-page opinion by ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Josue Leocal, a Florida man who challenged his deportation to Haiti in 2002 after pleading guilty to a felony charge of drunken driving.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DUI offense was a “crime of violence” under the immigration statute because he had injured others. Leocal drove through a flashing red light and struck another car, injuring two people in that car.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It said the statute suggests the felony offense must require intent in causing harm — not mere negligence as in Leocal’s case — before immigrants are subject to the drastic consequence of deportation.

“Drunk driving is a nationwide problem, as evidenced by the efforts of legislatures to prohibit such conduct and impose appropriate remedies,” Rehnquist wrote. “But this fact does not warrant our shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit.”

ACLU: Victory for immigrants
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, hailed the ruling as a victory for immigrants.

“Today’s unanimous decision repudiates the administration’s improper interpretation of the law, and underscores the crucial role of the courts in reviewing government deportation orders,” said Lucas Guttentag, director of the group’s Immigrants Rights Project.

Leocal, 47, was sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2000 on the felony charge, but his lawyer had argued that during his nearly 20 years in the United States he had never been arrested before, nor did he deliberately intend to cause harm.

The case is Leocal v. Ashcroft, 03-583.

Later this term, the court will rule on two other immigration cases in which the government argues it should have wide discretion to send back or indefinitely incarcerate foreigners in a post-Sept. 11 world of heightened terrorist threats.

In a second ruling Tuesday, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a decision in a case involving a dispute over cargo damaged in a train wreck. The court ruled unanimously that a contract negotiated as part of a federal maritime law protects Norfolk Southern Railway Co. from having to pay large damages, even though the accident happened on land, not at sea.

The accident caused about $1.5 million in damage to machinery being shipped from Australia to Huntsville, Ala.

The case is Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Kirby, 02-1028.

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