United States District Court, S.D. New York
December 13, 2005.
MANUEL PUELLO Petitioner,
BUREAU OF CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION SERVICES Respondent.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN KEENAN, Senior District Judge
OPINION AND ORDER
This is a review of a Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration
Services*fn1 ("BCIS") decision denying Petitioner's
application for naturalization due to his inability to establish
good moral character as a result of a 1991 drug conspiracy
conviction. Both parties move for summary judgment. The Court
grants summary judgment in favor of Respondent.
Petitioner Manuel Puello was admitted to the United States as a
lawful permanent resident on October 14, 1974.*fn2 On
September 21, 1989, an indictment was filed in this District,
charging Puello with conspiracy to distribute a controlled
substance; specifically with negotiating to sell approximately
two kilograms of cocaine to a confidential informant. On December
12, 1989, Mr. Puello plead guilty to the offense, an aggravated
felony under immigration law.*fn3 On April 3, 1991, Mr.
Puello was sentenced by Judge Patterson to time served plus four
years of supervised release. On April 10, 1991, the Judgment in a Criminal Case was filed with the Clerk.
On or about October 5, 2001, Mr. Puello applied for United
States Citizenship. On the application, Mr. Puello answered "yes"
to a question that asked whether he had ever been arrested or
convicted of a violation of any law or ordinance. BCIS (then
Immigration and Naturalization Service) conducted an examination.
On September 13, 2002, the BCIS District Director issued a
decision denying Puello's naturalization application on the
ground that Puello had been convicted of an aggravated felony
after November 29, 1990 (the relevant statutory date), and was
therefore precluded by statute from demonstrating good moral
On October 2, 2002, Puello filed an administrative appeal of
the decision, pursuant to the Immigration and Naturalization Act
("INA") § 336(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1447(a). On February 28, 2003, BCIS
upheld the previous denial on the grounds stated in the initial
decision. Puello now seeks judicial review of his application for
naturalization in this Court, pursuant to INA § 310(c),
8 U.S.C. § 1421(c) (providing that review of a naturalization denial
"shall be de novo, and that the Court shall make its own
findings of fact and conclusions of law").
Summary judgment is particularly suitable in this case, as both
parties agree to the same underlying material facts. They simply disagree about what the law is as applied to those facts.
See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986)
(finding that where "there is no genuine issue as to any material
fact" judgment should be entered as a matter of law.) The fact
that this is a naturalization challenge does not make summary
judgment any less appropriate. Naturalization challenges in
district courts are civil actions and subject to general rules
governing civil litigation. See Tutun v. United States,
270 U.S. 568, 577 (1926); Petitions of Rudder, 159 F.2d 695, 697
(2d Cir. 1947); United States v. Jerome, 16 F.R.D. 137, 138
The sole issue for consideration here a question of law is
whether, for the purpose of establishing good moral character
under the immigration laws, a "conviction" takes place on the
date a defendant pleads guilty or on the date the defendant is
sentenced. Puello pled guilty on December 12, 1989, and he was
sentenced on April 3, 1991. Immigration law provides that an
applicant cannot establish the good moral character necessary to
become a citizen if he was convicted of an aggravated felony on
or after November 29, 1990. 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (f) (8) (as amended
by the Immigration Act of 1990, Pub.L. No. 101-649, Title V,
104 Stat. 4978, 5051 (Nov. 29, 1990)); 8 C.F.R. § 316.10 (b) (1) (ii)
(2004) ("An applicant shall be found to lack good moral character
. . . if the applicant has been . . . [c]onvicted of an aggravated felony . . . on or after November 29, 1990."); see
also 2 American Immigration Lawyers Association, Immigration
and Nationality Law Handbook 403 (Randy P. Auerbach et al. eds.,
Puello claims "conviction" refers to the date of the guilty
plea, and the government contends "conviction" refers to the date
of sentencing. According to the law, the government is correct.
The INA provides that:
The term "conviction" means, with respect to an
alien, a formal judgment of guilt of the alien
entered by a court or, if adjudication of guilt has
been withheld, where
(i) a judge or jury has found the alien guilty or the
alien has entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere
or has admitted sufficient facts to warrant a finding
of guilt, and
(ii) the judge has ordered some form of punishment,
penalty, or restraint on the alien's liberty to be
8 U.S.C. § 1101 (a) (48) (A) (emphasis added). Because this is
not a case where adjudication of guilt has been withheld, only
the first portion of the definition "formal judgment of guilt . . .
entered by a court" is relevant.
Courts have interpreted "conviction," based upon the first part
of the above definition, to mean sentencing, at the earliest, or
the filing of a Judgment in a Criminal Case, which takes place
soon after sentencing. See Perez v. Elwood, 294 F.3d 552, 562 (3d Cir. 2002) (deciding that defendant was "convicted,
at the earliest, when the Court sentenced" him); Bankhole v.
INS, 306 F.Supp. 2d 185, 190 (D.Conn. 2003) (deciding defendant
"was convicted within the meaning of [the immigration laws] when
the . . . district court filed its Judgment in a Criminal Case").
Other cases, out of the immigration context, support this
definition. See Corey v. United States, 375 U.S. 169, 174
(1963) ("The sentence is the judgment") (quoting Berman v.
United States, 302 U.S. 211, 212 (1937)); United States ex rel.
Mignozzi v. Day, 51 F.2d 1019, 1021 (2d Cir. 1931) ("[T]he only
judgment in a criminal case is the sentence.").
Puello's "formal judgment of guilt" was "entered by the court"
on either the date of sentencing, April 3, 1991, when Judge
Patterson signed a form entitled "Judgment in a Criminal Case,"
or on April 10, 1991, when the Judgment in a Criminal Case was
filed with the Clerk of the Court. In either case, the conviction
occurred after November 29, 1990. Puello is, therefore, barred
statutorily from establishing good moral character.
The "rule of lenity" affords Petitioner no recourse from this
result. In deportation proceedings, the rule gives aliens the
benefit of the doubt in construing ambiguities in deportation
statutes. INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 449 (1987).
This, however, is a naturalization proceeding, in which courts generally construe ambiguities to the benefit of the government.
United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644, 649 (1929),
overruled in part on other grounds, Girouard v. United
States, 328 U.S. 61, 69 (1946) ("Because of the great value of
the privileges conferred by naturalization, the statutes
prescribing qualification and governing procedure for admission
are to be construed with definite purpose to favor and support
For the reasons described above, Petitioner's motion for
summary judgment is denied, and Respondent's motion for summary
judgment is granted. The action is dismissed and ordered removed
from the Court's docket.
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