527 F.2d 187 (2nd Cir. 1975), 18, Lennon v. Immigration and Naturalization Service

Docket Nº:18, Docket 74--2189.
Citation:527 F.2d 187
Party Name:John Winston Ono LENNON, Petitioner, v. IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE, Respondents.
Case Date:October 07, 1975
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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527 F.2d 187 (2nd Cir. 1975)

John Winston Ono LENNON, Petitioner,



No. 18, Docket 74--2189.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

October 7, 1975

Argued Sept. 4, 1975.

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Nathan Lewin, Washington, D.C., and Leon Wildes, New York City, for petitioner.

Mary P. Maguire, Sp. Asst. U.S. Atty. (Paul J. Curran, U.S. Atty., S.D.N.Y., and Mel P. Barkan and Naomi Rice Buchwald, Asst. U.S. Attys., of counsel), for respondent.

Jack Wasserman, Esther M. Kaufman, Washington, D.C., Donald L. Unger, San Francisco, Cal., and Mark A. Mancini, Washington, D.C., filed a brief for the Association of Immigration and Nationality Lawyers as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Before KAUFMAN, Chief Judge, and MULLIGAN and GURFEIN, Circuit Judges.


We have come a long way from the days when fear and prejudice toward alien races were the guiding forces behind our immigration laws. The Chinese exclusion acts of the 1880's and the 'barred zone' created by the 1917 Immigration Act have, thankfully, been removed from the statute books and relegated to the historical treatises. Nevertheless, the power of Congress to exclude or deport natives of other countries remains virtually unfettered. In the vast majority of deportation cases, the fate of the alien must therefore hinge upon narrow issues of statutory construction. To this rule, the appeal of John Lennon, an internationally known 'rock' musician, presents no exception. We are, in this case, called upon to decide whether Lennon's 1968 British conviction for possession of cannabis resin renders him, as the Board of Immigration Appeals believed, an excludable alien under § 212(a)(23) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(23), which applies to those convicted of illicit possession of marijuana. We hold that Lennon's conviction does not fall within the ambit of this section.


To provide the necessary context for decision in this case, an overview of the factual background is appropriate.

On October 18, 1968, detectives from the Scotland Yard drug squad conducted a warrantless search of Lennon's apartment at 34 Montague Square, London. There, the officers found one-half ounce of hashish inside a binocular case and thereupon placed Lennon under arrest. Lennon pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis resin in Marylebone Magistrate's Court on November 28, 1968; he was fined $ 150. 1

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On August 13, 1971, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono arrived in New York. They had come to this country to seek custody of Mrs. Lennon's daughter by a former marriage to an American citizen.

It was at this point that the Lennons first met with the labyrinthine provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act which were to result in the deportation proceedings which we review. Accordingly, a brief description of the relevant portions of that Act is here in order.

INA § 212(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a), lists thirty-one classes of 'excludable aliens' who are ineligible for permanent residence, and, indeed, are (with the exception provided by § 212(d)(3)(A)), unable to enter this country at all. This portion of the Act is like a magic mirror, reflecting the fears and concerns of past Congresses. Among those excludable is

any alien who has been convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation relating to the illicit possession of . . . marihuana (§ 212(a)(23))

Section 212(d)(3)(A) permits the INS, in its discretion, temporarily to waive excludability

Since Lennon's conviction appeared to render him excludable, the INS specifically waived excludability under § 212(d)(3)(A). The Lennons were then given temporary visas valid until September

The day after Lennon's visa expired, March 1, Sol Marks, the New York District Director of the INS, notified the Lennons by letter that, if they did not leave the country by March 15, deportation proceedings would be instituted. On March 3, Lennon and his wife filed third preference petitions. 2 In response to these applications, the INS instituted deportation proceedings three days later. The INS, for reasons best known to them, did not act on the applications, and the Lennons were therefore unable to apply for permanent residence. After waiting two months, the Lennons filed suit in the Southern District for an injunction compelling the INS to rule on their petitions. Lennon v. Marks, 72 Civ. 1784. 3 At oral argument in that case, Marks advised the judge that the INS

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would consider the applications; they were approved within the hour.

In March, April, and May, 1972, deportation hearings were held before Immigration Judge Fieldsteel. On May 12, 1972, ten days after the INS finally approved their petition for third preference status, the Lennons applied to the Immigration Judge for permanent residence. 4 During the hearing, letters from many eminent writers, artists, and entertainers, as well as from John Lindsay, at that time the Mayor of New York, were submitted to show that, were the applications approved, the Lennons would make a unique and valuable contribution to this country's cultural heritage. The Government did not challenge Lennon's artistic standing, but instead contended that his 1968 guilty plea made him an excludable alien, thus mandating the denial of his application. Lennon countered by arguing that he was not excludable under § 212(a)(23) since he had not been convicted of violating a law forbidding illicit possession. Under British law, Lennon urged, guilty knowledge was not an element of the offense. Lennon further argued that, by commencing deportation proceedings while he was seeking custody of his wife's child, 5 the agency had violated its hitherto invariable practice and therefore had abused its discretion. 6

The Immigration Judge filed his decision on March 23, 1973. Since Yoko Ono had obtained permanent resident status in 1964, he granted her application. But, because he believed that Lennon was an excludable alien, the Immigration Judge denied his application and ordered him deported. The Immigration Judge also held that it was not within his province to review the Director's decision to begin deportation proceedings.

Lennon sought review of the Immigration Judge's decision before the Board of Immigration Appeals. He also began a collateral action in the Southern District in which he sought to enjoin his deportation. He was deserving of this relief, he contended, since the District Director and the Immigration Judge had prejudged his case. The INS had, he said, instituted deportation proceedings because they feared he might participate in demonstrations that would be highly embarrassing to the then-existing administration. In January, 1975, Judge Owen denied a government motion for summary judgment. Lennon v. United States, D.C., 387 F.Supp. 561 (1975).

Meanwhile, on July 10, 1974, the Board filed its decision. The Board conceded that § 212(a)(23) does not exclude aliens convicted of possession under laws which made knowledge immaterial to the offense. However, the Board concluded that

a person who was entirely unaware that he possessed any illicit substance would not have been convicted under

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the (British) Dangerous Drugs Act of 1965. (p. 25)

The Board also held that it was without jurisdiction to consider Lennon's claim that he was improperly denied nonpriority status. Accordingly, the Board concluded that Lennon was ineligible for permanent residence and affirmed the Immigration Judge's deportation order. 7


It is within the context of these issues that we must decide the merits of this appeal. INA § 212(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a), provides:

(T)he following classes of aliens shall be ineligible to receive visas and shall be excluded from admission into the United States . . .. (23) Any alien who has been convicted of a violation of, or conspiracy to violate, any law or regulation relating to the illicit possession of or traffic in narcotic drugs or marihuana . . ..

The Immigration Judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals believed that Lennon' § 1968 conviction made him excludable under this section. We are of the view that it did not. We base this result upon our conclusion that (A) Lennon was convicted under a law which in effect makes guilty knowledge irrelevant and that (B) a foreign conviction for possession of marijuana under such a law does not render the convicted alien excludable.

  1. Lack of Knowledge Requirement under British Law in 1968

    The language of the British statute under which Lennon was convicted is deceptively simple: 'A person shall not be in possession of a drug unless . . . authorized . . .' 8 But around this concise provision, judicial interpretation has created a scholastic maze as complex and baffling as the labyrinth at Knossos in ancient Crete.

    The most authoritative judicial pronouncement on the knowledge requirements of the British act is Warner v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner, (1969) 2 A.C. 256, (1968) 2 All E.R. 356. The facts in that case were relatively simple. The luckless Warner was stopped by police while he was driving his van. Inside a box in the back of the vehicle, police found twenty thousand amphetamine tablets. Warner claimed ignorance; he had, he said, been given the parcel by a friend who had told him that it contained perfume, which Warner sold as a sideline. The House of Lords was called upon to decide whether Warner would be guilty of amphetamine possession even if he did indeed believe that his package held perfume.

    Each of the five Law Lords delivered a separate opinion. All save Lord Reid agreed that, once possession was proven, liability was absolute and mental state irrelevant. They felt that, to require the prosecution to prove full mens rea would, in Lord Guest's words, create a 'drug peddlar's charter in which a successful prosecution will be well-nigh...

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