Anniversary of Leocal v. Ashcroft: DWI Inappropriate to Trigger Deportation

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Leocal v. Ashcroft[1]. Leocal[2] stands for the proposition that DWI crimes which lack mens rea, or only require proving negligence are not “crimes of violence” which trigger deportation.


The Case

The case behind Leocal is relatively mundane. Josue Leocal a citizen of Haiti and lawful permanent resident of the United States since 1987 was arrested in November of 2000 for felony Driving Under the Influence (DUI)[3] and causing serious bodily injury. Mr. Leocal plead not guilty to both counts, but was found guilty of both offense and sentenced to two and a half years in jail. While in jail, in October 2001, Immigration and Naturalization Service began deportation proceedings began under section 237(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The judge held that Mr. Leocal’s DUI was a “crime of violence”, and thus an aggravated felony which opened Mr. Leocal to deportation, denied Mr. Leocal’s application for relief, and ordered him deported to Haiti. Mr. Leocal appealed the ruling, and in August 2002 the Board of Immigration Appeals sustained the judge’s ruling and ordered Mr. Leocal deported. In November 2002, Mr. Leocal was deported to Haiti. From Hatit, Mr. Leocal appealed the ruling. However, in a 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion had held that a DUI was an aggravated felony, and as such the court had no jurisdiction to review the lawfulness of the deportation order. The Supreme Court granted cert in 2004.

The Argument[4]

The Supreme Court heard arguments on October 12th, 2004. Mr. Leocal argued that his deportation was not lawful because, while he had committed a felony DUI, the Florida statute under which he was convicted did not have an element of mens rea. The lack of mens rea means that Mr. Leocal’s felony did not qualify as a “crime of violence” under the Immigration and Nationality Act 237 (a) because “crimes of violence” required some kind of intent to do the crime, not just negligence or statutory crimes.

The State argued that Mr. Leocal’s offenses were crimes of violence because while the statute lacked an intent requirement, DUI’s had a substantial risk of physical force against a person or property while the offense is committed.

The Decision[5]

The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on November 9th, 2004. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist[6] held that Mr. Leocal’s deportation had been unlawful. The Court held that, because the Florida felony DUI statute did not require a mens rea element, Mr. Leocal could not have committed a crime with an attempt, or threatened attempt of physical force because such statutory language implies knowingly, intelligently, or recklessly. The Court also rejected the State’s contention that DUI’s always entail a substantial risk of physical force. Further the Court looked to other sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act which expressly distinguished between DUI’s and other crimes of violence. Finally, the Court held that DUI’s which do not contain an element of mens rea or only contain the element of negligence cannot expose a permanent alien resident to deportation proceedings.


With the Court’s judgment rendered, Mr. Leocal was able to return to the United States and his family. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can make sure your rights are protected.

Written by Hunter J. White

[1] Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1, 125 S. Ct. 377 (2004)


[3] Equivalent to a DWI in Texas