Pugin v. Garland: 2022-23 Supreme Court Criminal Decisions
In Pugin v. Garland, the Court was tasked with resolving a circuit split over whether an independent offense “relating to obstruction of justice” (such as perjury or bribery) requires the charged event to be linked to an active government investigation, or if the classification is a static one for purposes of sentencing.
Pugin stems from two immigration proceedings. In the first, Fernando Cordero-Garcia, a Mexican citizen, was charged with several offenses in California, including dissuading a witness from reporting a crime in 2009. In the second, Jean Francois Pugin, a Mauritanian citizen, was convicted of being an accessory to a felony in Virginia in 2014.
The Department of Homeland Security separately charged both defendants as removable from the United States because they had committed “aggravated felonies,” specifically ones that were “relating to obstruction of justice.” In both instances, the immigration judge trying the case held for the Department, and Cordero-Garcia and Pugin were slated for deportation.
Both defendants filed for appeal within their respective Courts of Appeal. After considering Cordero-Garcia’s case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Cordero-Garcia’s conviction was improper because it met all the criteria for a crime “relating to obstruction of justice” even though an active investigation was not impeded. Alternatively, in Pugin’s case, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held in the inverse, that Pugin had committed a crime “relating to obstruction of justice” and there did not need to be an ongoing case. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Thomas, Alito, Barrett and Jackson. Justice Kavanaugh begun his analysis by quoting previous precedent regarding the Court’s process for classifying offenses, stating that the Court must “look to the elements of the statute of conviction, not to the facts of each defendant’s conduct.” Based on this rationale, a plain reading of the statute at hand, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(S), does not require that a government investigation be actively ongoing to classify it as a crime “relating to obstruction of justice.” Kavanaugh supported this assertion by clarifying that even the Model Penal Code does not require an obstruction charge to be related to an ongoing investigation.
Based upon this plain reading of the statute, the Court held in favor of the 4th Circuit’s interpretation and reversed the 9th Circuit’s verdict.
Justice Jackson authored a concurrence in which she explained that the Court’s verdict could also be reached through an alternative means of reviewing Chapter 73 of Title 18, which outlines the federal definition of obstruction of justice. A plain reading of this statute also does not require an ongoing proceeding for a crime to be considered obstruction.
Justice Sotomayor authored a dissent to the Court’s holding, joined in full by Justice Gorsuch and in part by Justice Kagan. Sotomayor contended that the Court overstepped in rushing directly to the categorical comparison between the statute and the accused offense in that it fails to consider both the basic elements of the generic offense. According to Sotomayor, for an offense to be related to obstruction, there must be some form of obstruction actually taking place, which is the colloquial understanding of the term rather than the highly technical definition work that Kavanaugh’s opinion favors.
Furthermore, Justice Sotomayor cited to the extensive history surrounding federal obstruction of justice charges, which indicates that Congress had always understood obstruction to be substantially related to an ongoing investigation to be actionable. This is also mirrored in parallel state obstruction statutes. According to her, the Court’s adopted definition of “relating to obstruction” encompasses far too many potential offenses to be practically worthless as a categorization, resulting in a “significant potential for ‘redundancy,’ ‘unfairness,’ and ‘arbitrary’ enforcement[,]” requiring the lower courts to do a great deal of legal soothsaying to determine what kinds of offenses are actually covered under the categorization of “relating to obstruction.”
While this decision is a short one, its potential impacts are far-ranging. Based upon the majority’s opinion, the classification of offenses as “related to” another charge will be far easier to prove by prosecutors and government attorneys, likely resulting in higher rates of convictions. However, Sotomayor’s dissent eloquently indicates that the Court has opened the possibility of substantial unfairness in verdicts handed down against defendants, finding that they committed aggravated felonies rather than a more mundane version of the same crime, merely by citing a definitional extension that common sense would indicate is not present.