This Immigration Lawyer's Advice on DUI Consequences

Getting a DUI (or in some states, DWI or OWI) comes with criminal penalties and driver's license issues for everyone; but foreign nationals must deal with additional legal complications.

By Evita Tolu, Immigration Attorney
My phone rings and my long-time immigrant client is telling me frantically that he was arrested last night for drunk driving. The police arrested him, charged him with a DUI offense, punched a hole in his driver's license, and gave him a bunch of forms once the bail was posted. By morning the immigrant client is in shock.

Once the shock wears out several important decisions must be made. There are three distinct areas the client's attorney needs to concentrate on:

  • immigration consequences of the DUI (or DWI, OUI, OWI, DWAI, depending on the state) charge
  • the upcoming court process, which will involve both penalties and sentencing, and
  • an administrative process likely involving license revocation/suspension by the Bureau of Licensing or Department of Motor Vehicles.

This article addresses the first point, the immigration law issues, specifically:

  • how immigration law regards crimes generally
  • when a criminal conviction can lead to being deported from the United States
  • when a criminal conviction blocks entry to the United States or approval for lawful permanent residence, and
  • when a criminal conviction prevents approval for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

We will assume the non-citizen has already pled or was found guilty of a DUI offense and the immigration consequences of the guilty DUI plea or guilty verdict.

See for information about criminal and administrative penalties for DUIs.

General Consequences of a Criminal Charge and Conviction on Immigrant Status

A DUI record of arrest, criminal charge, and conviction may affect the status of an immigrant in the United States. When arrested, law enforcement authorities will take fingerprints and photographs of the alien and register these in national databases. The immigration consequences of the client's plea or conviction usually depend on specific facts of the crime, the client's prior violations (if any), and where the client is in the immigration process.

Under U.S. immigration law, "conviction" is defined broadly. Under Section 101(a)(48) of the Immigration and Nationality Act the term conviction, with respect to an alien, means:

  • a formal judgment of guilt entered by a court, or if adjudication of guilt has been withheld, where a judge or jury has found the alien guilty or the alien has entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or has admitted sufficient facts to warrant a finding of guilt, and
  • the judge has ordered some form of punishment, penalty, or restraint on the alien's liberty to be imposed.

Any reference to a term of imprisonment or sentence with respect to an offense is deemed to include the period of incarceration or confinement ordered by a court of law regardless of the imprisonment or execution of that imprisonment or sentence in whole or in part.

An experienced immigration attorney must review carefully the particular state code and consider the criminal statute involved word for word, element for element. The attorney must also work with the court system to try to arrange that the client's drunk driving crime does not meet the definition of conviction under immigration law. There are several strategies that can help an immigrant client under these circumstances.

Criminal records are permanent and will be referenced every time the non-citizen makes an application for an immigration benefit; for example applies for work authorization, visa renewal, asylum, adjustment of status, naturalization, or admission into the United States with a refugee travel document or a green card. And again, the main consequences of DUI convictions for non-citizens either inside the U.S. or outside include deportation, denial of admissibility into the United States, and denial of citizenship.

Can an Alien Be Removed or Deported as a Result of a DUI Conviction?

Some, but not all DUIs can lead a non-citizen to be deported or removed from the United States, depending on certain facts or aggravating circumstances of the crime.

DUI as a Crime of Violence

Crimes of violence can lead to deportation, particularly if they're viewed as aggravated felonies.

In an important case called Leocal v. Ashcroft, the Supreme Court considered whether a DUI crime is a crime of violence for purposes of an aggravated felony conviction. The Supreme Court considered the case of a lawful permanent resident ("LPR") who was convicted in Florida of two counts for driving under the influence and causing serious bodily injury. The Florida DUI statute penalizes as a third-degree felony the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence, where it causes serious bodily injury to another.

The Florida statute required proof of driving under the influence but did not require a specific mental state. Nevertheless, the LPR was placed in removal proceeding and charged as an aggravated felon for a crime of violence. The Supreme Court analyzed the definition of "crime of violence" codified in 18 U.S.C. 16(a). This section defines the crime as an offense that has an element of the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or the property of another. The Supreme Court concluded that this definition demands a higher degree of intent than mere negligent conduct. The Court said that the "use of physical force" language in 18 U.S.C. 16(a) aimed at a category of violent, active crimes that cannot be said naturally to include DUI offenses.

The Supreme Court's analysis suggested that the a crime of violence is an offense that presents significant risk that the intentional use of force will arise in the course of committing a crime. The Supreme Court reversed Leocal's removal order.

DUI as a Crime of Moral Turpitude

Conviction of a crime of moral turpitude (CMT) can also lead to deportation.

For example in June of 2009, in a case called Hernandez-Perez v. Holden, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a conviction under Iowa's DUI statute coupled with a conviction for child endangerment (the child was in the car) was a crime of moral turpitude preventing Hernandez-Perez from seeking cancellation of removal.

Hernandez-Perez, a citizen of Guatemala, entered the United States without inspection (unlawfully). While in the United States, he pled guilty in Iowa state court to one count of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and one count of child endangerment resulting in bodily injury pursuant to several Iowa statutes. Under Iowa law, someone is guilty of child endangerment who is "the parent, guardian, or person having custody or control" over a minor child and "[k]nowingly acts in a manner that creates a substantial risk to a child or minor's physical, mental, or emotional health or safety." (Iowa Code § 726.6). The Eighth Circuit explained the term "knowingly" to mean actions with the knowledge that defendant was creating a substantial risk to the child's safety.

The phrase "crime of moral turpitude" is not defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (the "I.N.A."). The Eighth Circuit explained that the phrase "moral turpitude" refers to conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to the accepted rules of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in general. The acts which involve moral turpitude are the acts which are accompanied by a vicious motive or corrupt mind, "the presence or absence of a corrupt or vicious mind is not controlling."

Generally, to determine whether a conviction qualifies as one involving moral turpitude, courts look at the language of the statute, and not at the underlying facts. Critical to a finding of moral turpitude is the intent required by the statute under which the person is convicted. Although moral turpitude is typically found in crimes committed intentionally or knowingly, U.S. courts have held that reckless conduct may be sufficient if an aggravating factor is present.

In Hernandez-Perez, the Eighth Circuit observed that even if the statute did not require a specific intent to cause harm, it required that the violator consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk. Although the court recognized that a drunk driving offense on its own "almost certainly does not involve moral turpitude," it concluded that the statute's requirement that the defendant "create a grave risk of death to another person," was an aggravating factor sufficient to find moral turpitude. Hernandez-Perez was ordered to be removed from the United States.

Can a Foreign National Be Denied Admission to the U.S. for a DUI Conviction?

When someone applies for an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad, or applies for a green card via the "adjustment of status" process (used by some applicants already living in the United States), the grounds of inadmissibility codified in Section 212(a) apply. If convicted of a DUI with an aggravated factor, the applicant might be denied the U.S. visa by a U.S. consulate or refused adjustment of status by USCIS. (In the latter case, the applicant would also be placed into deportation proceedings.)

Further, all visa and green card applicants must undergo a medical exam with a U.S. government-approved physician. If, for example, an immigrant visa applicant has a DUI conviction that does not fall within definition of crimes of moral turpitude or crimes of violence, a U.S. consulate abroad may refer the applicant to a panel physician for further review. An applicant who is determined to be an alcoholic will receive a Class A determination from the Panel Physician. The consulate must defer to the Panel Physician's recommendation in its visa decision. There is a procedure for review of a Panel Physician's determination by the Center for Disease Control, but its rarely if ever used.

It is important to work with an experienced immigration attorney before the medical examination. Preparation must start with the review of the facts with the immigrant visa applicant's physician. If the record indicates possible addiction, immigrant applicants must be prepared to explain to the Panel Physician, and present evidence that establishes that they do not possess a medical condition of alcohol or drug addiction/abuse.

In the nonimmigrant visa renewal or revalidation context, a visa applicant may be denied visa renewal as a result of the DUI conviction if the conviction falls within definition of crimes of violence or crimes of moral turpitude under the state law. Applicants who fall under one or more of the grounds of inadmissibility will be denied the visa, unless they qualify for and receive a waiver.

Can an Alien Be Denied U.S. Citizenship as a Result of a DUI Conviction?

This question was answered by a Minnesota federal court in Ragoonanan v. USCIS in 2007. The USCIS denied Ragoonanan's Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) on the grounds that he failed to establish that he "has been and still is a person of good moral character" within five years of his application as required for naturalization.

Ragoonanan, a U.S. lawful permanent resident, was arrested for driving while impaired with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.18%, more than double what Minnesota law allowed for motor vehicle operation. Ragoonanan was charged with a fourth-degree misdemeanor DWI, and was jailed for one night.

Later Ragoonanan voluntarily underwent a substance-abuse inventory that categorized him as having "abusive episodic" tendencies and a "low probability of having a Substance Dependence Disorder." He also completed a six-hour Alcohol, Drug and DWI Awareness course. Ragoonanan's 90-day sentence and $1,000 fine were stayed in lieu of a $300 fine, a $65 surcharge, one year of probation, and the requirement that he attend a victim impact panel. Ragoonanan fulfilled all financial and probationary requirements.

Ragoonanan applied for U.S. citizenship while his probation was pending. He disclosed his conviction to the USCIS, which in turn, denied Ragoonanan's application on the basis of his DWI conviction. Ragoonanan sought de novo review in the federal court. After reviewing the facts and the law, the court held that there was no authority indicating that a single DWI conviction resulting in probation operates as a statutory or regulatory bar to a naturalization applicant who seeks to establish "good moral character." The court explained that since Ragoonanan underwent substance-abuse treatment, attended a six-hour alcohol awareness course, paid a fine, and completed a year of probation, he was a person of good moral character.

When to Hire a Lawyer

Recent decisions of the immigration and federal courts clearly demonstrate that having a DUI conviction on an immigrant client's record can be very damaging. Therefore, it is important to hire an experienced immigration attorney to advise the client during DUI plea negotiations. We regularly represent foreign nationals during their DUI plea negotiations. We will assess your legal situation, explain the immigration consequences of the DUI plea, work with your criminal attorney to manage the negotiation process and if necessary work with the court system to minimize the negative impact of the DUI plea on your immigration record.

This information is general in nature and is not specific legal advice. It does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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