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Change to New York Misdemeanor Definition May Benefit Non-Citizens

by Michael Berk

New York’s new amendment to its penal code reduces the maximum sentence for Class A misdemeanor offenses to 364 days. The previous maximum punishment was one year in jail.

The One Day to Protect New Yorkers Act, passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 29, 2019, made this seemingly insignificant change to certain minor “Class A” offenses, such as shoplifting, passing bad checks, offering counterfeit goods, and false advertisement. Other, more serious “Class A” misdemeanors, like drug crimes, child abuse, domestic violence, firearm offenses, and repeat “crimes of moral turpitude” are not affected by the amendment.

The Act aims to protect immigrants who commit first-time, run-of-the-mill misdemeanors from disproportionately harsh federal consequences. Federal immigration law is written so as to provide for deportation of (and denial of citizenship for) immigrants convicted of such crimes “for which a sentence of a year or longer may be imposed.” The earlier version of the N.Y. Penal Law, which provided for up to one year’s incarceration, overlapped with this hefty definition by just one day.

Under the old code, both lawful “green card” holders and illegal immigrants who incurred a first-time shoplifting misdemeanor conviction—even if sentenced to no jail time in their personal case—would have been subject to permanent removal from their established homes and families in America because the maximum sentence under the state statute fell within the federal definition. (40 percent of Class A misdemeanor convictions in New York result in non-jail sentences, and only 4 percent of people facing the maximum penalty are actually sentenced to a year in jail.)

The change is expected to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system, making plea bargains more accessible to defendants who previously had to worry about deportation consequences, as well as to help vulnerable members of the community, such as asylum seekers and victims of domestic violence who otherwise might have been barred from immigration relief.

Three other states—California, Washington, and Nevada—have passed similar amendments; and the criminal codes of others, including New Jersey, Illinois, and New Mexico, had already defined misdemeanors to carry maximum sentences of less than one year. 

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Sources: nypost.com, Immigrant Defense Project

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