A provision in U.S. law requiring the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes of violence is unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a decision that could hinder the removal of immigrants with criminal records.
The court, in a 5-4 ruling in which President Donald Trump’s conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch joined four liberal justices, invalidated the provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act and sided with convicted California burglar James Garcia Dimaya, a legal immigrant from the Philippines.
Federal authorities ordered Dimaya deported after he was convicted in two California home burglaries, in 2007 and 2009, though neither crime involved violence, Reuters reports.
Justice Elena Kagan said the disputed provision’s ambiguity had created confusion in lower courts. “Does car burglary qualify as a violent felony?” Kagan wrote. “Some courts say yes, another says no.” Kagan mentioned other examples including rape, evading arrest and trespassing in which courts have also been divided.
“No one should be surprised that the Constitution looks unkindly on any law so vague that reasonable people cannot understand its terms and judges do not know where to begin in applying it,” Gorsuch wrote.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Oct. 2, the first day of its current nine-month term. The court initially heard arguments in January 2017 when it was one justice short, but decided last June after Gorsuch brought the court to full strength to have the case re-argued, putting the new justice in a position to cast the deciding vote.