The case concerned Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a lawful permanent resident who pleaded no contest in 2009 in California to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger.” Under California law, a minor is a person under 18. Over the five months of their relationship. Mr. Esquivel-Quintana was 20 or 21, and the minor was 16.
The federal government sought to deport him under a federal law that calls for removal of people who have committed aggravated felonies, including “sexual abuse of a minor.”
Justice Thomas, writing for the court, surveyed the laws of other states as of 1996, when the federal law was enacted.
“Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia set the age of consent at 16 for statutory rape offenses that hinged solely on the age of the participants,” he wrote. “As for the other states, one set the age of consent at 14; two set the age of consent at 15; six set the age of consent at 17; and the remaining ten, including California, set the age of consent at 18.”
Justice Thomas concluded that the federal law, like that in most states, should treat the age of consent as 16, at least where the sex was consensual.
“Absent some special relationship of trust, consensual sexual conduct involving a younger partner who is at least 16 years of age does not qualify as sexual abuse of a minor” under the federal law, he wrote, “regardless of the age differential between the two participants.”
The ruling overturned decisions by both an immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which each looked at the laws and said statutory rape did qualify as abuse of a minor.
The Immigration and Nationality Act sets standards for deportation based on the nature of criminal convictions, not on the actual details of a crime.