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Iowa Supreme Ct: Immigration status OK to consider in sentencing

In 2018, a Mexican immigrant who had been brought to the U.S. as a teenager was convicted in Iowa of intent to deliver marijuana. During a 2017 traffic stop, officers allegedly found 184 one-pound bags of marijuana and a handgun in his car. Although he claimed he had been using the marijuana to treat back pain, Guillermo A. pled guilty to the charge.

If Guillermo had been a U.S. citizen, he might well have been placed on probation. However, the judge in his trial decided he should not be given probation but should instead be sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also placed on an immigration hold because deportation was likely in his case.

The trial judge admitted that he made Guillermo's sentencing decision based in part on his status as an unauthorized immigrant. He also considered the large amount of marijuana involved, concluding that the factors combined to make Guillermo a "danger to the community" and a flight risk.

Guillermo's attorney appealed the sentence on Due Process and Equal Protection grounds. He argued that he was given jail time instead of probation primarily because of his immigration status, whereas a citizen would likely have received probation.

Guillermo was paroled after 17 months in prison. Unfortunately, he was immediately arrested by U.S. marshals and is slated for federal prosecution and deportation.

Iowa's high court weighs in

In turning down Guillermo's appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reasoned that his immigration status was important to consider in this particular case, although that might not be true in every case.

If Guillermo had been given probation, he might still have been deported. If he had been, part of his Iowa probation term would have been served in Mexico, where there are no resources to supervise him. The trial judge could reasonably take that into account because Guillermo's deportation was virtually certain.

When determining a sentence, trial judges are allowed to consider factors such as the defendant's living situation and job prospects. This is done in an effort to "optimize the rehabilitation of the criminal offender." Immigration status is similar, allowable factor, the court ruled, just as it would be when setting bail.

At the same time, however, the high court made clear that probation might be an appropriate sentence for a similar crime in the future, even if committed by a deportable immigrant.

Whether you're an immigrant or not, you deserve to have all relevant factors considered as a criminal defendant - but not factors that would be unjust. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, contact an experienced defense attorney right away.

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