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As soaring crime overwhelmed New York City’s courts in the 1970s, state lawmakers came up with a fix to speed things up. The State Legislature decided that people facing less than six months in jail would have their cases decided by a single judge rather than a jury.
That law has had the unintended effect of depriving immigrants in the city of jury trials for crimes like prostitution and harassment, even though they face the stiff punishment of deportation if convicted, advocates for immigrants said.
This week New York State’s highest court carved out an exception to the law, declaring in a 5-2 decision that noncitizens are entitled to jury trials for deportable offenses under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a trial by an impartial jury.
Immigrant advocates and civil rights lawyers hailed the ruling as giving all immigrants, not just those charged with serious crimes, an avenue under the Constitution to fight charges that could lead to their removal from the country and permanent separation from their families. But critics said it gave them more rights than citizens have and might lead to bigger backlogs in the criminal courts.
Bennett L. Gershman, a law professor at Pace University and a former Manhattan prosecutor, called the ruling “a progressive, enlightened decision that puts New York as a court at the forefront of protecting immigrants.”
The question of whether the constitution grants a right to a jury trial to defendants facing deportation for petty crimes has become more important as President’s Trump hard-line immigration policies have gone into effect. Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge, said the issue would inevitably be one for the Supreme Court to decide.
A decision by the nation’s highest court would resonate in eight states, New York City and the District of Columbia, where crimes punishable by less than six months in prison can only be tried by judges. Most other states and jurisdictions give defendants the right to ask for a jury trial regardless of the severity of the charges.
Judge Leslie E. Stein said in her opinion for the Court of Appeals majority that deportation is a “sufficiently severe penalty” to warrant a jury trial under a standard set by the United States Supreme Court in 1970.
The loss of liberty associated with deportation, Judge Stein wrote, “is analogous to that inherent in incarceration.” And the risk for immigrant defendants of being permanently expelled from the United States and isolated from their families “is frequently more injurious to noncitizen defendants than six months or less of imprisonment.”
The majority on the Court of Appeals followed the reasoning of a court in Washington, D.C., which held in June that a pastor seeking asylum from Burkina Faso had the right to a jury trial on misdemeanor sexual abuse charges because the near-certainty of his deportation elevated the crime to a serious offense.
Judge Michael J. Garcia countered in a dissent that courts should defer to the State Legislature in determining the seriousness of a crime, not to federal immigration law. And Justice Rowan D. Wilson added in another dissent that if the prospect of deportation triggered the right to a jury trial, “the entire federal system of removal of undocumented aliens is unconstitutional.”
The ruling granted a new trial for Saylor Suazo, an immigrant from Honduras who remained in the United States after his visa expired. He was convicted of assault and harassment in 2012, after Bronx prosecutors said he threw his children’s mother to the floor, choked her and punched her in the head and neck.
Mr. Suazo initially faced up to a year in jail, but just before trial, prosecutors reduced the charges so that he could be tried by a judge instead of a jury. Prosecutors commonly use the maneuver to speed up cases.
Darcel D. Clark, the Bronx district attorney, predicted the ruling would create “serious backlogs and disparities in the administration of justice, for the courts of this state.” She said she was considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.
But Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said the impact of the ruling on court operations remained to be seen. Only 675 misdemeanor cases went to trial last year in New York City and 470 were decided by judges, Mr. Chalfen said. It’s unclear how many of those trials involved immigrants, who make up about 40 percent of the city’s 8.6 million residents. City demographers estimate that 500,000 of them are undocumented.
Mark W. Zeno, a Columbia Law School professor who represented Mr. Suazo on appeal, said immigrants convicted of crimes are under increasing scrutiny from federal authorities “and ensuring that they’re fairly convicted is more important now than ever.”
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the Court of Appeals recognized that the lack of procedural safeguards for immigrants charged with deportable offenses “creates an enormous constitutional harm that the state courts have to step in and step up to prevent.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
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