New Law Reduces Consequences for California Immigrants Convicted of Misdemeanors

California law now more closely matches federal law on deportable offenses.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed what's known as SB 1242, which makes two important legal changes that will ease the formerly harsh immigration consequences for California non-citizens convicted of certain misdemeanors.

By way of background, it's important to understand that under federal immigration law (Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A. § 101(a)(45)), an immigrant can be removed from the U.S. or face other immigration consequences for committing an aggravated felony. Just like it sounds, that's meant to be a serious crime. It can include theft, murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, drug trafficking, and various other crimes. But it also includes crimes that don't always sound so serious, if they carry sentences of at least one year, such as theft, a violent crime, perjury, or obstruction of justice. And the catch for immigrants in California was that many of these, while classed as misdemeanors, were previously punished with a sentence of one year, turning them into possible aggravated felonies.

Yet another provision of U.S. immigration law (I.N.A. § 212(a)(2)(A)(II)) says that single conviction of a "crime involving moral turpitude" (such as theft) can have adverse immigration consequences if it carries a potential sentence of 365 days (one year).

A few years ago, to deal with the severe consequences of California's criminal codes, the legislature enacted California Penal Code § 18.5 (effective January 1, 2015). It changed the maximum possible punishment for a California misdemeanor from 365 days to 364 days.

But the new law helped only people who were convicted of misdemeanors after its 2015 effective date. It provided no help to those earlier convicted of a California misdemeanor. SB 1242 deals with that issue, by amending the penal code to apply retroactively.

Going forward, every California misdemeanor conviction, regardless of date, now has a potential sentence of no more than 364 days. If affected, you won't need to do anything about this; the change will apply automatically to all misdemeanors as soon as the new law goes into effect (January 1, 2017).

The second important part of the new law provides that people who, before January 1, 2015, were sentenced to a year in county jail for a misdemeanor can have their sentence reduced by one day, to 364 days. This provision is not automatic; you would need to apply to a criminal court judge for the change.