On Nov. 30, Ryan Snodgrass sat in a wooden chair in a small courtroom and tapped his right foot. When US Immigration Judge William Cassidy -- one of the toughest immigration judges in the country -- called Snodgrass to testify, the hazel-eyed 19-year-old ambled to the stand.
A lot was to be decided that day. The judge could take away the only home Snodgrass has known for the past 15 years.
Cassidy furrowed his brow as he advised Snodgrass to tell the truth about his past mistake. Snodgrass spoke in a soft voice as he recalled his arrest at age 15. Little did Snodgrass know four years ago that the arrest -- for which he already served his punishment -- may lead to his deportation.
Snodgrass, the subject of an Atlanta CL story published earlier this year ("Zero Tolerance," March 3), is Canadian by birth and has lived in Florida as a permanent resident with a green card for about 13 years. When he was 15, he was a passenger in a car that police pulled over. Cops found about three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana inside. Snodgrass admitted the pot was his. Police charged him with possession and, because the weed was divided among four bags, intent to sell.
Snodgrass pleaded guilty and received probation, a fine and a curfew. Because he was a juvenile, his record was sealed from the public.
Three years later, in October 2004, Snodgrass and his family were returning to Florida from a trip to Europe. As Snodgrass passed through the border checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, immigration officials pulled him aside. Christine Furman, Snodgrass' mother, recalls that a computer flagged her son because of his arrest four years earlier.
Though Snodgrass' juvenile record had been sealed from the public, the Patriot Act allows law enforcement to tap into prior violent crimes and drug arrests, including sealed juvenile records, in what civil liberties advocates claim is an invasion of privacy.
In Snodgrass' case, immigration officials considered him a convicted drug trafficker. They handcuffed him and held him in custody for a week.
"The arrest [for marijuana] was an unfortunate situation," Furman says. "But we didn't think it would come around and bite us like this."
After Snodgrass recounted his marijuana arrest to the court, Cassidy took a deep breath before issuing his ruling. The fact that Snodgrass was not convicted of the drug charges but, rather, agreed to a plea and abided by the conditions of the plea sat well with the judge.
The judge told Snodgrass that he would be allowed to stay in the United States.
"I'm pleased you have made a turn in life." Cassidy said. "Good luck, and God bless you."
Cassidy's decision runs counter to his reputation as a harsh immigration judge. For instance, in cases of immigrants requesting asylum, Cassidy rejects about 19 out of every 20 cases he hears.
Marshall Cohen, an immigration attorney who represented Snodgrass, won a case before Cassidy the previous day involving a man charged with bringing Valium into the country. Cohen presented evidence that the man had been set up by his girlfriend's sister, and Cassidy didn't deport that client, either.
The judge noted that Cohen was "batting 1,000."
"[Cassidy] is very fair in discretionary cases," Cohen says. "He usually gives people a second chance."
Snodgrass will be able to apply for US citizenship once he turns 20, after proving he exhibited "good moral character" during the five years following his arrest, Cohen says.
"It's been a long year," says Snodgrass, who can now continue classes at Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary school in Orlando, without wondering if he'll be kicked out of the country. "I can finally get on with my life."