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Decades-Old Criminal Case Against Father Detained By ICE Settled, Paving Way For His Potential Release From Detention

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Lawyers for Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, an undocumented L.A. father who became the subject of international headlines after being arrested by immigration authorities while dropping his young daughters at school in February, have settled the two misdemeanor convictions that initially prompted his detainment. Avelica-Gonzalez, 49, is originally from Mexico and has lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years. He has four U.S. citizen daughters.

Avelica-Gonzalez's two misdemeanor convictions (one of which is from two decades ago; the other is almost a decade old) had previously made him ineligible for certain forms of relief from deportation. The Department of Homeland Security has also cited the convictions as a reason for making him a deportation priority.

City Attorney Mike Feuer had initially opposed Avelica-Gonzalez's effort to vacate his misdemeanor convictions and plea to lesser charges. The City Attorney dropped his opposition, however, and on Friday a judge granted Avelica-Gonzalez's request to vacate a 1998 misdemeanor conviction for receipt of stolen property and re-plea to a lesser vehicle code violation in relation to the incident. Speaking at an unrelated press conference on Tuesday, Feuer said that the matter had been resolved "to the satisfaction of Mr. Avelica-Gonzalez, of the court, and of our office."

"The court focused on a set of facts that had not been before the court previously, the essence of which was, 'Was the advisement provided 20 years ago consistent with the requirements of state law?' The court concluded that it was not," Feuer said, adding that both his office and the defendant concurred with that assessment. "I think it's a just result," the City Attorney continued. Advocates for Avelica-Gonzalez also praised the resolution. "Mr. Avelica appreciates the City Attorney's efforts, consistent with state law, to limit the unjust immigration consequences of Mr. Avelica's conviction," the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which has been heavily involved in the case, said in a statement.

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A judge had separately vacated Avelica-Gonzalez's other misdemeanor conviction, for a 2008 DUI where he was not represented by an attorney when he pled guilty, and where he did not fill out the waiver forms properly, last month.

Avelica-Gonzalez's 1998 conviction is emblematic of the way many undocumented residents can end up entangled with the criminal justice system. Thanks to the implementation of AB 60 in 2015, undocumented Californians can now obtain driver's licenses despite their lack of legal status. However, back in 1998, Avelica-Gonzalez couldn't have legally registered a car in California, and he took a plea for a misdemeanor conviction of receipt of stolen property after he was caught driving with someone else's license plate tag on his license plate. According to Escovar, if Avelica-Gonzalez had been properly advised of the immigration consequences at the time, he could have pled to a separate charge on the complaint for having false tags, which wouldn't have had the same immigration consequences.

A new California state law that went into effect on January 1 this year explicitly provides immigrants like Avelica-Gonzalez with a legal remedy to potentially vacate convictions where they weren't advised of the potential adverse immigration consequences beforehand. According to his lawyer, this law paved the way for the resolution of Avelica-Gonzalez's case. Escovar told LAist that a waiver form that Avelica-Gonzalez had signed at the time "actually inaccurately described the immigration consequences" which provided the basis for vacating the receipt of stolen property conviction. Though the difference between a receipt of stolen property conviction and the newly pled-to crime (a lesser vehicle code violation for displaying unauthorized tags) might seem like trivial legal shading, the distinction has major implications for Avelica-Gonzalez's immigration case. Because receipt of stolen property had been considered a "crime of moral turpitude," the conviction had previously hindered Avelica-Gonzalez's ability to gain legal status. The conviction is also what triggered his being placed in removal proceedings in the first place. Although the criminal and immigration proceedings are entirely separate, Escovar reports that the vacated charge "should clear the way for discretionary relief in immigration court."

His lawyers have moved for the Board of Immigration Appeals to reconsider his case, in part because of Friday's decision. They are now asking ICE to stay his deportation and release him from detention in the interim. Avelica-Gonzalez, whose job as a restaurant food preparer provides his family's primary source of income, has been held in custody at an immigrant detention center in the high desert since February 28 (at an approximate per day cost of $161, taxpayers have now paid roughly $18,000 for the undocumented father's months-long detention).

"It's a great victory," Escovar said of Friday's decision. "It represents what we can do in our judicial system to obtain fair results that meet the needs of law enforcement and the goal of keeping families together."

"I'd like to thank City Attorney Mike Feuer for ensuring that Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez's case was treated with fairness and all evidence considered in our pursuit of justice for this Angeleno," Councilman Gil Cedillo said in a statement Wednesday.

Related: This Is What It's Like When A Father Of 4 Is Detained By ICE While Dropping His Daughters Off At School

Note: Although receipt of stolen property was considered a crime of moral turpitude when an immigration judge previously reviewed Avelica-Gonzalez's case, it is no longer considered as such.