Most non-U.S. citizens convicted of a single DUI will not face adverse immigration consequences. But under certain circumstances, driving under the influence can lead to
- inadmissibility to the United States, or
- denial of citizenship.
DUI crimes that can subject a non-citizen to deportation and/or inadmissibility include:
- Driving while under the influence of, or addicted to, drugs (or in rare cases, alcohol), 1 2 3
- DUI with a child in the car,4 or
- Multiple drunk or drugged driving convictions (or a DUI plus other criminal convictions).5
But keep in mind that the above reflects the current state of federal immigration law. Every once in a while someone in the U.S. Congress introduces a bill to make driving under the influence a deportable offense.
So far these bills have failed. But Congress might in the future pass a bill that increases the immigration consequences of a drunk driving conviction.
What if the person arrested for DUI is in the U.S. unlawfully?
An undocumented immigrant who is arrested for driving under the influence faces possible deportation — not for the DUI criminal charge, but for being present unlawfully.
The only sure way for an undocumented alien to protect him- or herself is to not drink and drive in the first place.
For more information on DUI and unlawful presence, please see Section 9 below. You may also wish to read our blog post “Should an undocumented immigrant get a driver’s license in California?”
In order to help you better understand the immigration consequences of a driving under the influence conviction, our California DUI lawyers discuss the following, below:
- 1. What are deportable and inadmissible crimes?
- 2. How do ordinary DUI convictions affect immigration?
- 3. Are DUIs crimes involving moral turpitude?
- 4. Are DUIs aggravated felonies?
- 5. What are the immigration consequences of DUI of drugs (DUID)?
- 6. What if I had a child in the car?
- 7. What are the immigration consequences of multiple DUI convictions?
- 8. What is the effect of driving under the influence on a “good moral character” determination?
- 9. What happens after a DUI by those unlawfully present?
- 10. Can I enter Canada after a drunk or drugged driving conviction?
1. What are deportable and inadmissible crimes?
The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (usually referred to as the “INA”) governs U.S. immigration law. Under the INA, some criminal convictions can lead to “deportation” and/or “inadmissibility.”6
If a crime makes a non-citizen deportable, he or she may be removed (deported) from the country.
If a crime makes an immigrant inadmissible, the immigrant may not:
- Re-enter the country after leaving,
- Become a U.S. citizen (“naturalize”),
- Apply for permanent residence (a “green card”), or
- Apply for an “adjustment of status” from illegal to legal.7
1.1. “Deportable” crimes
There are numerous categories of crimes that can get someone “removed” (deported) from the United States. These include:
- “Crimes involving moral turpitude” (“CIMT”),8
- “Aggravated felonies,”9
- Controlled substances (drug) crimes, 10 and
- Crimes involving knowing child neglect.11
Crimes of moral turpitude
The legal definition of moral turpitude is vague. This makes it the most problematic category for determining whether a DUI can lead to deportation.12
But, in general, a CIMT is one that involves:
- Fraud, or
- Antisocial behavior that harms others.13
Typical examples are “crimes of violence” and California fraud crimes.
An aggravated felony is any crime designated as such by the United States Congress. It does not necessarily have to be a felony under California law.
Some 30 crimes as currently designated as aggravated felonies. These include violent felonies such as murder, rape and kidnapping.14
But they also include many seemingly low-level California drug crimes and white-collar crimes.
However, at least at present, driving under the influence is not classified as an aggravated felony.15
A conviction relating to a drug on the federal list of controlled substances is a deportable offense.16 But because federal and California law define drug crimes differently, this is a particularly complicated area of immigration law.
We will not discuss this subject in-depth here. Just know that because of this distinction, using a conviction for DUI of drugs (“DUID”), Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC as a basis for removal is open to challenge. But an immigrant might still have to fight removal in immigration court. So it is usually best to avoid a conviction for DUID in the first place.
DUID with prior convictions
Another potential problem with a DUID is that an arrest might trigger further investigation. This can be a problem even if the person is not convicted of drugged driving offense. This is because it is illegal for someone to drive in California at all if he or she is addicted to any drug.17
So if there is drug paraphernalia in the vehicle–or if the defendant has prior DUID convictions that make drug use seem like a habitual problem–an immigrant could face difficulties.
An immigrant who is arrested for DUID of drugs should immediately contact an experienced DUI lawyer who is familiar with immigration law.
Knowing child neglect
Driving under the influence with a child in the car is sometimes charged as “child endangerment,” Penal Code 273a.18 As a result, an immigrant who is convicted of this offense may face removal (deportation) proceedings.
Merely placing a child in danger negligently is not grounds for deportation.19 But knowingly putting a child in danger is a ground for removal (deportation) under the Immigration and Nationality Act.20
This is another technical and complex area that can easily lead to problems unless the immigrant’s DUI defense lawyer also has experience with immigration law.
We discuss this issue in more detail in Section 6, below.
1.2. Inadmissible crimes
Inadmissible crimes are those which keep a person from being able to enter the U.S. lawfully or to become a U.S. citizen or green-card holder. Such crimes include:
- Any crime involving moral turpitude (“CIMT”) committed within five (5) years of entry into the United States,21
- Most drug crimes,22
- Any two (2) or more crimes for which the defendant’s total prison sentences add up to five (5) years or more,23 and/or
- Any crime(s) that demonstrate a lack of “good moral character.”24
It is possible for a crime to fit into more than one category. This can make it difficult for non-citizens to determine whether a particular charge can lead to deportation and/or inadmissibility.
Lawyers must advise clients of immigration consequences
California criminal lawyers must, by law, advise their clients who are non-citizens of the potential immigration consequences of:
- A plea of guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to a crime, or
- Any proposed plea bargain the immigrant is considering.
If a defendant is not advised of such consequences he or she can bring a Padilla motion to set aside the conviction.
2. How do ordinary DUI convictions affect immigration?
Most convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol do not have negative immigration consequences (at least at present). DUI is usually charged as a misdemeanor and is not considered a CIMT or an aggravated felony.25
Courts have repeatedly held that simply driving under the influence – by itself – is not grounds for removal (deportation).26
Common charges that do not usually have immigration consequences include:
- Vehicle Code 23152(a), driving under the influence of alcohol,
- Vehicle Code 23152(b), driving with a BAC of .08% or greater, and
- Vehicle Code 23153, DUI causing injury.27
The only way that one of these charges would be likely to trigger immigration consequences would be if:
- The defendant was convicted of another crime based on the same incident or had a prior criminal record, and
- The total sentences handed down for all the defendant’s crimes added up to more than five (5) years.28
3. Are DUIs crimes involving moral turpitude?
The INA does not define “crime of moral turpitude.”29 Nevertheless, it is settled law that an ordinary (simple) DUI is not a CIMT. 30
Courts have relied on the interpretation of “CIMT” used adopted by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”). The BIA defines moral turpitude as “conduct that shocks the public conscience.”31
This includes conduct that is:
- Inherently base, vile, or depraved, and
- Not acceptable for persons living in a society.32
3.1. Specific intent is a required element of a CIMT
In deciding whether a crime is a CIMT, courts will look first to the criminal statute defining the crime. To be a CIMT, a crime must usually be one that requires a defendant to have a specific intent to commit the crime.33 Mere criminal negligence is insufficient.
This is why a simple drunk driving conviction is not a crime of moral turpitude. Under California law, no specific mental state must be proved for a DUI conviction. The only “elements” of the crime that must be proved are:
- That the defendant drove a vehicle, and
- That the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time.34
In other words, the prosecutor doesn’t need to show that the defendant intended to drive drunk. He/she does not need to prove that the defendant intended to violate a traffic law or injure anyone.
Example: Francisco is from Guatemala and is in the U.S. on a student visa. One New Year’s Eve, he is pulled over and arrested for DUI.
The only facts that the prosecutor must prove are that Francisco was driving and that he was under the influence of alcohol at the time. Francisco pleads “no-contest,” which involves admitting that both of those facts are true.
Francisco has not admitted that he had any kind of criminal intent or state of mind. So his drunk driving conviction is not a crime of moral turpitude that would make him inadmissible.
3.2 Is DUI a crime involving moral turpitude if another person is injured?
Historically, DUI causing injury or death was not a crime involving moral turpitude. This is because in order for a crime to be a CIMT, the statute defining that crime must set forth specific criminal intent. In the past, this required that a crime be committed either “willfully” (on purpose) or “knowingly,” meaning either that:
- The defendant intended the result the statute was meant to punish, or
- The defendant knew his actions would achieve that result.35
Example: California’s “robbery” law, Penal Code 211, defines “robbery” as taking personal property from someone, against his or her will, through the use of force or fear.
This a crime of moral turpitude because robbery requires a willful action and otherwise qualifies as a CIMT. 36
But in a case known as Matter of Franklin, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that criminal recklessness was enough to make an offense a CIMT.37
This is worrisome for immigrants. The Administrative Appeals Office (“AAO”)38 has already suggested that this holding applies to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, California Penal Code 191.5 – at least for purposes of an application for a waiver of inadmissibility. 39
Their reasoning is that:
- A PC 191.5 violation requires “gross negligence,” and
- The California Supreme Court’s definition of “gross negligence” mirrors the definition of “recklessness” in the statute at issue in the Franklin case.40
It is not known whether the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”)41 or a federal court would follow this reasoning in a removal (deportation) case.
But it is a matter of concern for California immigration and criminal defense attorneys.
3.3. Is DUI a crime involving moral turpitude if someone is killed?
Drunk driving is usually not a crime of moral turpitude even if another person is killed as a result. There must be a specific intent to commit a crime or achieve a certain result for a crime to be a CIMT.
As discussed in Section 3.2., above, following the Franklin decision, there is concern that this may be changing in cases of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Exception: DUI murder (a/k/a “Watson” murder)
One type of DUI that counts as a crime involving moral turpitude is DUI murder (also known as “Watson” murder). Watson murder can be charged when a defendant who drives drunk or drugged acted with “implied malice” (also known as “malice aforethought”).
Someone acts with implied malice when:
- He or she intentionally commits an act (in this case driving under the influence);
- The natural and probable consequences of the act are dangerous to human life;
- At the time the defendant acts he or she knows the act is dangerous to human life; and
- The defendant deliberately acts with conscious disregard for human life.42
Murder is both an aggravated felony and a CIMT. So someone who is convicted is both deportable and inadmissible.
4. Are DUIs aggravated felonies?
Most DUI convictions are not generally considered aggravated felonies. To be an aggravated felony, a crime must be defined as such in the INA.43 But the current list does not include driving under the influence.
And the United States Supreme Court has held that driving under influence is ordinarily not a “crime of violence.” Crimes of violence constitute one category of offense that often counts as an aggravated felony.44 So unless the defendant is convicted of “Watson” murder, drunk driving is not a crime of violence–even if it causes injury or death.45
It is possible that in the future Congress may add DUI causing injury or death to the definition of “aggravated felony.” But for now, most driving under the influence crimes are not on this list.
5. What are the immigration consequences of DUI of drugs (DUID)?
While a simple DUI involving alcohol often has no immigration consequences, DUI of drugs is not so simple. Under U.S. immigration law, people convicted of drug crimes are both deportable and inadmissible.46
Under the law, DUID often involves an illegal substance. And when it does, a conviction for DUID can subject someone to removal action.
However, California and federal drug laws have different definitions of controlled substances. For highly technical reasons, this often means that someone convicted under California drug laws cannot successfully be deported, even if the substance is on the federal list. (A federal drug conviction is different).
However, an immigrant may still have to fight the issue in immigration court. So rather than fight DUID charges in criminal court and risk a conviction, immigrants may prefer to plead guilty or no contest to a crime with fewer immigration consequences.
Example: Isabella is an immigrant from Italy who lives in the U.S. on a green card as a lawful permanent resident. One day she is pulled over for running a stop sign. The officer notices that Isabella is slurring her words and has “pinprick” pupils – possible symptoms of being high on opioids.
After Isabella performs poorly on field sobriety tests, she is arrested for driving under the influence. Because the officer suspects drug use, he requires Isabella to take a DUI blood test.
The test comes up positive for heroin. Isabella immediately contacts a California DUI defense lawyer who is knowledgeable about immigration issues.
Even though Isabella was not speeding, her lawyer negotiates “exhibition of speed” as a DUI plea bargain. Isabella pays a fine and does not go to jail. More importantly, she does not face any negative immigration consequences.
6. What if I had a child in the car?
There may be adverse immigration consequences when someone drives under the influence with a child in the car. DUI with a child in the vehicle can result in a conviction for “child endangerment” under Penal Code 273a.47
As discussed above, convictions for driving under the influence do not normally lead to immigration consequences. This is true even if the immigrant gets hit with enhanced penalties under Vehicle Code 23572, DUI with a child under 14 in the car.48
But sometimes the prosecutor charges PC 273a child endangerment instead of—or in addition to—those enhanced penalties.
Is child endangerment a crime of moral turpitude?
Unlike DUI, child endangerment charges can potentially be a CIMT. This is because one prong of the statute punishes someone who knowingly puts a child in danger.49
Knowingly putting a child in danger is a ground for removal (deportation) under the Immigration and Nationality Act.50
But there is another prong of PC 273a that punishes a defendant who places a child “in a situation where his or her person or health may be endangered” (emphasis added).51 This is negligent child endangerment, which is not grounds for deportation.52
Most California immigration lawyers will argue that no charges under PC 273a should ever be grounds for deportation. But it is not safe to assume that an overworked immigration law judge will understand these highly technical arguments.
According to Santa Bernardino DUI and immigration attorney John Murray53:
“A regular DUI won’t make an immigrant deportable or inadmissible–even with enhanced penalties for having a child under 14 in the car.
But a separate child endangerment conviction can lead to a tough fight about whether the offense was a crime of moral turpitude. Not all immigration judges understand the complex nuances of the law in this area. So I fight very hard to prevent a child endangerment conviction in the first place.”
7. What are the immigration consequences of multiple DUI convictions?
Some repeat DUI offenders will be inadmissible to the United States even when they have been convicted only of ordinary DUIs. It all depends on the amount of total jail time to which the immigrant was sentenced for all crimes he or she has committed.
An immigrant is inadmissible if:
- He or she has been convicted of any two (2) or more crimes (including one or more DUI offenses), and
- The total sentences for all crimes equal or exceed five (5) years. 54
Felony DUI is a particular concern
The five-year period for multiple convictions is especially likely to affect people convicted of felony DUI based on prior convictions.
This is because a fourth DUI conviction within a ten-year period is a felony that can be punished by as much as three (3) years in jail. When combined with sentences for the prior DUI convictions (as well as any other crimes the defendant has committed) that might push someone over the five-year limit.55
Example: Tommy, a non-citizen, is convicted of drunk driving four times within a space of ten years. For his first conviction, he receives a fine and probation. But his second involves the aggravating factor of driving at excessive speeds.56 He is sentenced to six months in jail. His third conviction is for felony DUI causing injury, and he is sentenced to 18 months in jail.57
By his fourth conviction, the judge is inclined to be extremely harsh with him. The judge sentences him to the three (3) years. This brings Tommy’s total to exactly five (5) years.
Now that Tommy has been convicted of more than 2 offenses with aggregate sentences of at least five (5) years, he is inadmissible. He is unable to leave the country and re-enter or to become a U.S. citizen.
8. What is the effect of driving under the influence on a “good moral character” determination?
Certain changes in status require immigrants to demonstrate “good moral character.” For instance, good moral character must be shown by immigrants who wish to:
- Become “naturalized” (naturalization means to become a U.S. citizen), 58 or
- Obtain “cancellation of removal” in California.59
Usually having one or even two ordinary DUI convictions will not negatively affect this determination.
But multiple convictions could lead the government to conclude that the applicant is a “habitual drunkard.” Under U.S. immigration law, a “habitual drunkard” is not considered to be of good moral character.60
Note that “habitual drunkard” is not the same as being an alcoholic. Alcoholism does not, of itself, preclude a finding of good moral character. It is a person’s conduct during the relevant time period that counts.
Example: Miguel, an alcoholic, has lived unlawfully in the U.S. for twenty years. He is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and has been to California DUI school several times. Still, he is a hardworking and respected member of the community.
Miguel gets caught up in a sweep at work and is served a notice of removal (deportation) for unlawful presence. Miguel then petitions the immigration court for cancellation of removal.
Unfortunately, Miguel has five drunk driving convictions on his record. These represent conduct that shows that Miguel cannot control his alcoholism. This makes him a “habitual drunkard” for immigration law purposes. The IJ therefore denies the petition because under federal law, Miguel is not of good moral character.61
9. What happens after a DUI by those unlawfully present?
Even though a DUI conviction is not a cause for deportation, it might flag an immigrant’s unlawful presence. But this is not always the case.
California is a so-called “sanctuary state.” This means that California law enforcement agencies will not contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) when someone:
- Uses an AB 60 license to identify him- or herself to state or local law enforcement, or
- When a state or local law enforcement officer arrests someone for a low-level crime (such as simple DUI).62
But arrests and convictions are public records. So if ICE is already looking for a specific name, an arrest may help ICE locate that person.63
And older drunk driving convictions may already be known by ICE. According to the National Immigration Law Center, in 2017 ICE agents frequently detained undocumented immigrants who had DUI convictions that were many years old. Those people then faced deportation for unlawful presence.64
How can an undocumented alien avoid deportation for a DUI arrest or conviction?
Unfortunately, the only way an illegal immigrant can truly protect him- or herself against deportation for a DUI is to not drink or use drugs and drive.
Immigrants who are arrested for drunk or drugged driving or who already have a DUI arrest or conviction on their record should contact an experienced California DUI attorney to discuss their options.
10. Can I enter Canada after a drunk or drugged driving conviction?
Both U.S. citizens and non-citizens are inadmissible to Canada after any conviction.65
We recommend that immigrants contact an experienced DUI lawyer before attempting to enter Canada with a DUI on their record.
Call us for help…
If you or a loved one is an immigrant facing a DUI charge, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.
Call us or fill out the form on this page to speak to an experienced California DUI and immigration lawyer near you.
We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California. Also see our page on DUI and H1-B visas.
We also have offices in Las Vegas and Reno that handle the criminal defense of immigrants in Nevada.
- See Immigration & Nationality Act (“INA”) 237, codified at 8 United States Code (“USC”) 1227. INA 237 (a)(2) lists the crimes that can make a non-citizen deportable. Driving under the influence is not one of them.
- See INA 212(a)(2), 8 USC 1182(a)(2).
- INA 237(a)(2)(B)(ii), 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(B)(ii)
- INA 237(a)(2)(E)(i), 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(E)(i).
- INA 212(a)(2) (B)
- See INA 237(a)(2) and INA 212(a)(2).
- See INA 245, 8 USC 1255.
- INA 237(a)(2)(A)(i), 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(A)(i):
- See INA 101(a)(43), 8 USC 1101 (a)(43) for the definition of “aggravated felony.”
- See INA 237(a)(2)(B)(i), 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(B)(i).See also INA 237(a)(2)(B)(ii), endnote 3.
- INA 237(a)(2)(E)(i).
- See, for example, Nunez v. Holder (2010) 594 F.3d 1124, 1124 (“Once again we face the question of what is moral turpitude [for purposes of criminal immigration law]: a nebulous question that we are required to answer on the basis of judicially established categories of criminal conduct. “)
- See, for example, Navarro-Lopez v. Gonzales, 503 F.3d 1063, 1074-75 (9th Cir.2007)
- The full list of aggravated felonies is set forth in 101(a)(43), codified at 8 U.S. Code 1101(a)(43).
- Same. See also Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1 (2004)
- 26 8 USC 1182(a)(2)(B)(i), 1227(a)(2)(B)(i).
- Vehicle Code 23152(c)
- Penal Code 273a
- Fregozo v. Holder, 576 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 2009).
- INA 237(a)(2)(E)(i). See also Matter of Mendoza-Osorio, 26 I&N Dec. 703, 710 (BIA 2016).
- INA 212(a)(2) (A)(i)
- INA 212(a)(2) (A)(i)
- INA 212(a)(2) (B), endnote 5.
- INA 316(a)
- See Matter of Abreu-Semino, 12 I&N Dec. 775, 777 (BIA 1968)
- INA 212(a)(2) (B), endnote 5.
- Abreu-Semino, endnote 25.
- See Matter of Torres-Varela 23 I&N Dec. 78 (BIA 2001)
- Torres-Varela, endnote 30.
- See cases cited in Torres-Varela, endnote 30.
- Under current Ninth Circuit law, upheld by the BIA, recklessness is generally not considered the specific intent that would make a California “wet reckless” conviction a “crime of violence” under 18 USC 16.
- Vehicle Code 23152 VC
- See, for example, Matter of Lopez-Meza, (BIA 1999) 22 I&N Dec. 1188.
- See People v. Stewart, (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 59, 66. (“[I]t is beyond dispute that robbery necessarily involves moral turpitude…”).
- Matter of Franklin, endnote 33.
- The AAO is an office within United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Most people who want to appeal an adverse USCIS decision must submit a petition to the AAO.
- See the redacted AAO determination letter linked to here.
- Same. See also People v. Bennett (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1032.
- The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) is the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying United States immigration laws.
- See California Penal Code 188 PC.
- INA 101(a)(43)
- A “crime of violence” is any offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another. See 18 USC 16(a). Note that there is an alternative definition of “crime of violence” set forth in 18 USC 16(b), but that provision was recently held by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutionally vague. See Sessions v. Dimaya, April 17, 2018.
- Leocal v. Ashcroft, endnote 15.
- INA 237(a)(2)(B)(i); INA 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(II).
- Penal Code 273a
- See Vehicle Code 23572 VC.
- Penal Code 273a(a), endnote 46.
- INA 237(a)(2)(E)(i). See also Matter of Mendoza-Osorio, 26 I&N Dec. 703, 710 (BIA 2016).
- See Penal Code 273a(b), endnote 46.
- See Fregozo v. Holder, 576 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 2009).
- San Bernardino DUI and immigration attorney John Murray is one of Southern California’s leading experts on DUI criminal defense. He defends clients in criminal cases throughout southern California as well as at all southern California DMV hearing locations.
- INA 212(a)(2)(B), endnote 5.
- Vehicle Code 23550(a) VC.
- Vehicle Code 23582(a) VC.
- See Vehicle Code 23153 VC.
- See INA 316(a)
- 8 USC 1229b(b)(1).
- 8 U.S. Code 1101 (f), endnote 3.
- See Ledezma-Cosino v. Sessions (9th Cir. 2017) No. 12-73289.
- See California Government Code 7282.5, which lists crimes for which California local and state law enforcement officials may contact ICE. Driving under the influence is not one of them.
- A DUI arrest is reported to the California DMV. It is unknown to what extent ICE has access to California DMV databases. So even though the California DMV does not make immigration status public, if ICE is already searching for a name, the DMV’s records may help ICE locate the individual. See National Immigration Law Center, “How U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and State Motor Vehicle Departments Share Information,” May 2016.
- See same.
- Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (“IRPA”) 36 (2).