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Immigration status can inform sentencing, rules Iowa high court


October 18, 2019—the Iowa Supreme Court decided State v. Guillermo Avalos Valdez today. In Valdez, police arrested a foreign national who was allegedly in the United States illegally. The sentencing court imposed prison rather than probation, in part because it found the defendant would make a poor probation candidate if taken into federal custody and deported. The defendant appealed, arguing that the court sentenced him to prison instead of probation because of his undocumented status and pending ICE hold.

In Valdez, police stopped the defendant for speeding and in conducting the traffic stop, testified that they smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle. They removed the defendant and a passenger, searched the car, and seized 184 pounds of marijuana. Prosecutors charged the Valdez defendant with Possession with Intent to Deliver Marijuana and Drug Tax Stamp Violation. He pled guilty pursuant to plea agreement and went directly to sentencing instead of a jury trial.

At sentencing, because of the immigration hold on Valdez for purported undocumented status, the State argued that he should be sent to prison instead of placed on probation because the state law offense required “mandatory detention” in federal court for such offenses. The prosecutor further argued probation ran counter to those federal mandates. The defense attorney cited to the Iowa Risk Revised, or, IRR, risk assessment that indicated the defendant was a low risk for future violence and victimization-- and further argued that a citizen would receive probation for the same offense.

The sentencing court took umbrage, stating:

“The statement that you think this Court would give a U.S. citizen with the same record a suspended sentencing is not accurate. 180 pounds of marijuana is one big deal, and it’s—he’s a danger to the community. And he’s a flight risk. I don’t think probation would be appropriate with pleading to this charge given his immigration status. He won’t be available if I were to award probation, as I understand it. So I don’t think probation is the appropriate sentence here.” (emphasis added).

The Valdez defendant served approximately 17 months of his ten-year sentence and was paroled to ICE custody pending federal prosecution for illegal entry. The State moved to dismiss the appeal as moot. The Valdez defendant resisted, arguing it was still relevant to appeal even though he was released from state custody. Valdez argued that in his criminal trial for illegal entry in federal court, he would be assessed more criminal history points for a sentence he had to serve instead of a suspended prison sentence unless it was reversed. Valdez also argued that justice and fairness for others required the court to look at this problem even if it was no longer relevant for him. The Court agreed the public policy exception to mootness should apply and they took the case on appeal over the State’s objection.

“We find the issue both important and likely to recur,” wrote Justice Mansfield.

Valdez argued that his prison sentence violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa and US Constitutions because the court considered his immigration status in determining a sentence.

The parties and the court examined cases in Oregon and California. The Oregon Court of Appeals held that immigration status is per se off limits but exceptions apply if “circumstances demonstrate a defendant’s unwillingness to conform his conduct to legal requirements.” The California court held that an “an illegal alien may be a poor candidate for probation given typically limited ties to the community and the prospect of deportation” but that should not be an “automatic disqualifier.” The Court examined other state decisions in New York, Georgia, Colorado, New York, and Nebraska, in that order.

The Court held that immigration status cannot itself be the basis for a sentence without more explanation—however, it held that insofar as immigration status may affect other sentencing factors, it may be taken into account.

In so doing, it rejected a Minnesota case that held immigration status was an inscrutable “collateral” matter that can never be analyzed, also finding that the Minnesota high court had not officially laid down such a rule.

Justice Mansfield put the rule down to a single, simple to understand double negative: “Immigration status is not a characteristic that can never be relevant to government action.” In other words, sometimes immigration status can lead to consequences that will make a defendant a poor or unavailable probationer, wrote the court. But a sentencing court must explore those factors.

In the case of the Valdez defendant, the court affirmed the sentence as within the due process and equal protection clauses.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Valdez case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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