FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a Florida-based Haitian embroiled in a drunken-driving accident did not commit a “violent crime” and should not have been deported to his homeland.

The 11-page opinion found in favor of Josue Leocal, a Haitian immigrant and permanent U.S. resident, who appealed his deportation after being convicted on a drunken-driving charge in 2000. Leocal had held a green card since 1987, but hadn’t sought citizenship. The drunken-driving accident in Miami, in which two people were injured, marked his first brush with the law.

Immigration lawyers celebrated the ruling, saying it came against a backdrop of increasingly aggressive efforts by the government to deport permanent residents involved in crimes, including some they consider relatively minor offenses. And even though Tuesday’s decision focused narrowly on DUI cases, they said, it could have implications for green card holders who face deportation for other crimes that cause harm, but are unintentional.

The high court ruled that while Leocal’s drunken-driving offense was negligent, he did not intend to harm anyone. As a result, he was not guilty of a “violent crime,” meaning the severe punishment of deportation should not apply to him. The high court reached the decision unanimously, overturning an earlier ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Drunk driving is a nationwide problem, as evidenced by the efforts of legislatures to prohibit such conduct and impose appropriate penalties,” said the opinion, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. “But this fact does not warrant our shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit.”

Michael Ciatti, of the Washington, D.C.-based King and Spalding law firm, which represented Leocal, welcomed the ruling.

“We’re very happy for our client, and very hopeful that this decision will allow him to return to his family,” said Ciatti.

Leocal, 47, worked on construction sites and as a mechanic before being charged in the drunken-driving incident in January 2000. He was deported two years ago, toward the end of a 30-month jail term for causing the accident, and has been living in Haiti since then.

Ciatti said he was optimistic that Leocal would be able to return to South Florida, where his wife and four children live, but he said it was unclear when the reunion would take place.

DUI offenses constitute “a serious crime,” Ciatti said, but he added: “Once people serve sentences (for drunken-driving accidents) they should not be subject to removal from the country.”

Other lawyers who advocate for immigrants welcomed the ruling as an opening that might lead to reviews of other deportation cases. Laws revised in 1996 allow judges to deport green card holders if they are convicted of aggravated felonies that carry a jail term of at least one year.

The classification ranges from murder to being caught twice carrying marijuana, or even shoplifting in some states. With increased surveillance in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, immigration lawyers say the government is pursuing such cases with more energy, sometimes going after permanent residents many years after they get out of jail.

“This is a rejection of government attempts to classify over-broadly what constitutes an aggravated felony,” said Dan Kesselbrenner, director for the Boston-based National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “Sometimes it’s neither an aggravated offense, nor a felony.”

Legal experts said Tuesday’s ruling could apply to crimes other than DUIs. Lory Rosenberg, a law professor at American University, pointed to the example of a day-care employee and green card holder who leaves a pool gate open. If a toddler were to wander into the yard, fall into the water and drown, she said, the accident might be viewed as negligent. But without the intent to do harm, the employee could not be deported.

The deportation hearings are sometimes triggered when green card holders with criminal pasts seek citizenship. With the high court ruling, those same people might be less reluctant to try for naturalization, the legal experts said.

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