NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
LUNA TORRES v. LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
No. 14–1096. Argued November 3, 2015—Decided May 19, 2016
Any alien convicted of an “aggravated felony” after entering the United States is deportable, ineligible for several forms of discretionary relief, and subject to expedited removal. 8 U. S. C. §§1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), (3). An “aggravated felony” is defined as any of numerous offenses listed in §1101(a)(43), each of which is typically identified either as an offense “described in” a specific federal statute or by a generic label (e.g., “murder”). Section 1101(a)(43)’s penultimate sentence states that each enumerated crime is an aggravated felony irrespective of whether it violates federal, state, or foreign law.
Petitioner Jorge Luna Torres (Luna), a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty in a New York court to attempted third-degree arson. When immigration officials discovered his conviction, they initiated removal proceedings. The Immigration Judge determined that Luna’s arson conviction was for an “aggravated felony” and held that Luna was therefore ineligible for discretionary relief. The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed. It found the federal and New York arson offenses to be identical except for the former’s requirement that the crime have a connection to interstate or foreign commerce. Because the federal statute’s commerce element serves only a jurisdictional function, the Board held, New York’s arson offense is “described in” the federal statute, 18 U. S. C. §844(i), for purposes of determining whether an alien has been convicted of an aggravated felony. The Second Circuit denied review.
Held: A state offense counts as a §1101(a)(43) “aggravated felony” when it has every element of a listed federal crime except one requiring a connection to interstate or foreign commerce.
Because Congress lacks general constitutional authority to punish crimes, most federal offenses include a jurisdictional element to tie the substantive crime to one of Congress’s enumerated powers. State legislatures are not similarly constrained, and so state crimes do not need such a jurisdictional hook. That discrepancy creates the issue here—whether a state offense lacking a jurisdictional element but otherwise mirroring a particular federal offense can be said to be “described” by that offense. Dictionary definitions of the word “described” do not clearly resolve this question one way or the other. Rather, two contextual considerations decide this case: §1101(a)(43)’s penultimate sentence and a well-established background principle that distinguishes between substantive and jurisdictional elements in criminal statutes. Pp. 4–21.
(a) Section §1101(a)(43)’s penultimate sentence shows that Congress meant the term “aggravated felony” to capture serious crimes regardless of whether they are made illegal by the Federal Government, a State, or a foreign country. But Luna’s view would substantially undercut that function by excluding from the Act’s coverage all state and foreign versions of any enumerated federal offense containing an interstate commerce element. And it would do so in a particularly perverse fashion—excluding state and foreign convictions for many of §1101(a)(43)’s gravest crimes (e.g., most child pornography offenses), while reaching convictions for far less harmful offenses (e.g., operating an unlawful gambling business). Luna theorizes that such haphazard coverage might reflect Congress’s belief that crimes with an interstate connection are generally more serious than those without. But it is implausible that Congress viewed the presence of an interstate commerce element as separating serious from non-serious conduct. Luna’s theory misconceives the function of interstate commerce elements and runs counter to the penultimate sentence’s central message—that the state, federal, or foreign nature of a crime is irrelevant. And his claim that many serious crimes excluded for want of an interstate commerce element would nonetheless count as §1101(a)(43)(F) “crime[s] of violence” provides little comfort: That alternative would not include nearly all such offenses, nor even the worst ones. Pp. 7–14.
(b) The settled practice of distinguishing between substantive and jurisdictional elements in federal criminal statutes also supports reading §1101(a)(43) to include state analogues that lack only an interstate commerce requirement. Congress uses substantive and jurisdictional elements for different reasons and does not expect them to receive identical treatment. See, e.g., United States v.Yermian, 468 U. S. 63 . And that is true where, as here, the judicial task is to compare federal and state offenses. See Lewis v. United States, 523 U. S. 155 . Pp. 14–19.
764 F. 3d 152, affirmed.
Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Alito, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas and Breyer, JJ., joined.