It's not a good time to be an immigrant with a felony conviction.
Just ask Nick Williams, a British citizen and respected music-industry veteran who's been living in Denver for years. Better yet, ask his lawyer: It's a little hard reaching Williams himself, since he's locked up in an Immigration and Naturalization Service jail in Virginia. He's been there since April 18, when he tried to re-enter the country at Washington Dulles International Airport after visiting his sick father in London.
"He's wondering what the hell is going on," says attorney Ralph B. Rhodes, who represented Williams in Denver District Court last year when he pleaded guilty to that felony.
In early 2001, someone (Rhodes believes it was an angry ex-girlfriend of Williams's) called the Denver police and told them that visiting Williams at his home address on South Forest Street might prove to be an interesting experience.
"Nick had just finished smoking a joint," Rhodes acknowledges, when the police knocked on his door on March 14 of last year. Officers thought they saw a marijuana cigarette inside Williams's apartment, which gave them probable cause to enter. During a search of his home, in which the officers looked for evidence that Williams was dealing pot, they found a gun safe. When Williams refused to open it, the police got a search warrant and sawed off the hinges.
What they found inside the safe made for a bad combination, especially for someone whose residency in this country is contingent on staying in the good graces of the federal government: a collection of guns, cash, and 15.6 ounces of marijuana.
Williams was charged with possession of more than eight ounces of marijuana and intent to distribute marijuana, both felonies; the fact that he also had firearms would have made things even worse had Williams ever faced a preliminary hearing, a trial or even a sentence. Instead, prosecutors let him plead guilty to a wholly separate charge -- felony trespass -- and gave him a chance to clear his name if he kept his nose clean for three years. Known as a deferred judgment, the October 2001 deal allows Williams to withdraw his guilty plea if he successfully completes his probation, at which point the case will be dismissed.
More important for Williams, who is a legal alien, the arrangement was designed to keep the INS from automatically deporting him. Unlike drug charges, a conviction for felony trespass isn't considered to be a crime of "moral turpitude," which usually subjects even legal immigrants to deportation.
"We understood that [deportation] was a possibility," Rhodes says. "But a number of people who had entered this kind of plea had not been subject to deportation."
At least, not before September 11.
Since then, however, the INS has become much more careful about checking airline passenger manifests for people with criminal backgrounds. Rhodes believes that's the only reason Williams was detained in Washington, D.C. "If Nick had not gone to Europe," he says, "he would still be walking around."
INS spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs wouldn't comment on her agency's policy or on Williams, except to confirm that he is being held at Rappahannock Regional Jail.
After hearing from an incarcerated Williams on April 18, Rhodes called Denver Chief Deputy District Attorney Greg Long, who'd signed off on the original plea agreement, and asked to have the felony-trespass charge dropped immediately so that the conviction would disappear.
"I told him, 'Not in this lifetime,'" says Long. Although his office allowed Williams to plead guilty to that charge so that the INS would not automatically deport him, Long points out that he has no say over what the federal agency actually does. "As far as I know, there is no plea that will absolutely insulate you from the INS, but the latest wisdom is that a felony-trespass charge will sometimes prevent someone from being deported," he explains.
"He's gotten all the breaks he's going to get, and if INS thinks he should be deported, that's their call. In the wake of September 11, I gather that all bets are off."
That could mean the end of Williams's attempt to become a U.S. citizen, Rhodes says, and possibly the end of his career as a production manager in this country, where he has worked for local promoters Nobody in Particular Presents and Barry Fey, among others.
"He's the best production manager we've ever worked with, and he's done all kinds of stadium shows and is the guy with the most experience," says NIPP partner Doug Kauffman. "He's been working for us for the last four years on and off, and he's known throughout the business as the best. He knows everybody."
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But Williams's connections -- especially his contact with rock stars -- have occasionally landed him in trouble. For instance, although prosecutors allowed Williams to travel around the country and overseas while his court proceedings were pending, they also required him to undergo drug testing. When one of those tests came back positive for a small amount of THC, Williams, through Rhodes, claimed that it was as a result of secondhand smoke.
"Mr. Williams is an event specialist and produces concerts throughout the Rocky Mountain area," reads a court document filed by Rhodes. "On August 18 and 19, 2001, he produced a concert featuring Widespread Panic in Larkspur, Colorado, on behalf of the House of Blues Concerts. His chief responsibilities included meeting with the bands in their dressing rooms, discussing the key elements of the show: sound, lighting, etc. He had several meetings at which most of the band members had or may have been smoking marijuana. Although he tried to stay away from the smoke, there may have been secondary smoke that he inhaled.... During this time, he also consumed some pastry refreshments that had been furnished to the band. Mr. Williams now believes that some of this pastry may have been made from the Alice B. Toklas recipe, of which he had no idea at the time that he consumed them."
So far, Williams's connections haven't proved helpful with the INS, either. Although Rhodes says the INS should have held a hearing within ten days of the arrest, Williams isn't scheduled to appear before a judge until May 9.
Rhodes plans to contact the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., to try to get Williams's case moved to Denver. "We want to show that he's not deportable," he says.