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If Immigrants Are Entitled to Jury Trial for Deportable Offenses, New York Court Rules

Category: Political News,Politics

The majority on the Court of Appeals followed the reasoning of a court in Washington, D.C., which held in June that a pastor seeking asylum from Burkina Faso had the right to a jury trial on misdemeanor sexual abuse charges because the near-certainty of his deportation elevated the crime to a serious offense.

Judge Michael J. Garcia countered in a dissent that courts should defer to the State Legislature in determining the seriousness of a crime, not to federal immigration law. And Justice Rowan D. Wilson added in another dissent that if the prospect of deportation triggered the right to a jury trial, “the entire federal system of removal of undocumented aliens is unconstitutional.”

The ruling granted a new trial for Saylor Suazo, an immigrant from Honduras who remained in the United States after his visa expired. He was convicted of assault and harassment in 2012, after Bronx prosecutors said he threw his children’s mother to the floor, choked her and punched her in the head and neck.

Mr. Suazo initially faced up to a year in jail, but just before trial, prosecutors reduced the charges so that he could be tried by a judge instead of a jury. Prosecutors commonly use the maneuver to speed up cases.

Darcel D. Clark, the Bronx district attorney, predicted the ruling would create “serious backlogs and disparities in the administration of justice, for the courts of this state.” She said she was considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

But Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said the impact of the ruling on court operations remained to be seen. Only 675 misdemeanor cases went to trial last year in New York City and 470 were decided by judges, Mr. Chalfen said. It’s unclear how many of those trials involved immigrants, who make up about 40 percent of the city’s 8.6 million residents. City demographers estimate that 500,000 of them are undocumented.

Mark W. Zeno, a Columbia Law School professor who represented Mr. Suazo on appeal, said immigrants convicted of crimes are under increasing scrutiny from federal authorities “and ensuring that they’re fairly convicted is more important now than ever.”

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the Court of Appeals recognized that the lack of procedural safeguards for immigrants charged with deportable offenses “creates an enormous constitutional harm that the state courts have to step in and step up to prevent.”


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