Students in Suffolk University Law School’s Immigration Clinic have won a major precedent-setting victory in an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, allowing their client, who was slated for deportation, to be freed from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. Clinic students also litigated the case before the Immigration Court and drafted the Board of Immigration Appeals brief.   

The decision will help immigrants from the First Circuit convicted of simple assault avoid removal from the country and the permanent bar on return to the U.S. The decision also will have a positive and significant impact on individuals with minor assault convictions who are facing sentencing enhancements—that is, additional years of jail time, said Virginia Benzan, director of Suffolk Law’s Immigration Clinic and the supervising attorney who worked with the students on the case.

“This victory, and the precedent it sets, speaks to the powerful impact of clinics on our clients, our students, our community, and on our system of justice. I am so proud of the Herculean effort made by the students to craft an extremely persuasive brief,” said Benzan. “It’s an important decision because it clarifies how this court determines whether a state statute meets the definition of a federal offense.”

The clinic’s client, Anthony Whyte, 40, who was born in Jamaica, has been a permanent resident of the U.S. since 1981 and had been detained by the immigration service for nearly four years while his case wound through the appeals process. He was freed from the ICE detention center in Boston on Dec. 10. Whyte had faced automatic removal to Jamaica, a country that he has not seen since he was a child.

Whyte was convicted of simple assault in 1999, a misdemeanor offense most commonly charged in cases with minor injuries. The crux of the matter before the First Circuit was whether a third-degree assault charge at the state level constituted an aggravated felony as a crime of violence, triggering the federal law requiring detention, deportation, and a permanent bar on return to the United States.

Students in the Suffolk Law clinic argued that the Connecticut statute on third-degree assaults, the lowest level of such crimes, does not include phrasing regarding the use of violent force and therefore should not trigger the federal law. The court agreed with the clinic, finding that the use of violent force must be an explicit element found within the plain text of the state statute, jury instructions, or in case law.

“We spent hours combing through legal research, questioning and refining our arguments, trying to keep up to date on how the courts were looking at aggravated felonies,” said Kelly Doolittle, JD ’15, one of the students who helped write the appeal brief. “It’s so easy to lose one of these cases if you don’t keep up, but having eight of us working on different aspects of the case was hugely helpful. It’s an amazing feeling that the ruling has set a precedent, and has become part of the law. Whyte will be at home with his family for Christmas. It’s such a great ending.”

An Amicus Curiae Brief supporting the clinic’s appeal was filed by Boston College Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, Immigrant Defense Project, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project.