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SCOTUS Refuses to Deport Immigrant Convicted of Statutory Rape in California

The US Supreme Court decision issued Tuesday confused countless people who read headlines much like the one above. Many people were in disbelief that a convicted rapist was saved from deportation by the Supreme Court.

However, like most legal matters that reach the Supreme Court, the actual issue was much more nuanced than the click-baiting, rabble rousing portrayal in the popular media. It basically boiled down to the difference between the way California and the federal government sees statutory rape. To the surprise of many, California law is actually stricter than federal law.

Details of the Case

Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a legal immigrant from Mexico, was convicted of statutory rape in California in 2009. He pleaded out to the charges. The charges were based upon him being 20 years old when he had consensual sex with his 16 (almost 17) year old girlfriend. There was no coercion, force, intimidation, threats, undue influence, or other facts indicating any illicit motivation.

After the conviction, deportation proceedings were brought against him, and both the immigration board and district courts ruled that he should be deported. Under federal law, when an immigrant is convicted of an aggravated felony, the conviction can be used as a basis for deportation, and permanent removal.

Difficult Decisions

After SCOTUS reviewed the matter, the justices voted unanimously to reverse the deportation. The court found that California's standard for charging a defendant with statutory rape was not in line with the federal standards, and as such, the California statutory rape conviction did not merit deportation under federal law.

The Court explained that California considers it statutory rape when a minor under the age of 18 consents to sex with someone over three years older than them. However, as noted in the opinion, the federal definition for sexual abuse of a minor requires the minor to be under the age of 16, which was not the case here. The court noted that under special circumstances, the outcome could very well be different, but noted that those circumstances weren't a factor in this case.

Notably, new justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the ruling as he was not confirmed when the oral arguments occurred, and as such, not qualified to rule on the matter. Even if he was allowed to vote, it would have been insignificant, given there were already eight votes in favor of reversing the deportation.

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