A drunk driving accident is not a "crime of violence" allowing the government to deport a permanent resident, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in the first of three cases this term delineating the rights of immigrants.

In an 11-page opinion by ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search), the court ruled unanimously in favor of Josue Leocal (search), a Haitian man fighting deportation in Florida after pleading guilty to a felony charge of drunk driving.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the DUI offense was a "crime of violence" under the immigration statute because he had caused injury to others.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It said the plain meaning of the statute suggests that the felony offense must require intent in causing harm — not mere negligence as in Leocal's case — before immigrants are subject to the drastic consequence of deportation.

"Drunk driving is a nationwide problem, as evidenced by the efforts of legislatures to prohibit such conduct and impose appropriate remedies," Rehnquist stated. "But this fact does not warrant our shoehorning it into statutory sections where it does not fit."

Leocal, 47, was sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2000 on the felony charge, but his lawyer had argued that he had never been arrested before during nearly 20 years in the United States, nor did he deliberately intend to cause harm.

The case is Leocal v. Ashcroft, 03-583.

Later this term, the court will rule on two other immigration cases in which the government argues it should have wide discretion to send back or indefinitely detain foreigners in a post-Sept. 11 world of heightened terror threats.

In a second ruling on Tuesday, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search) wrote a decision in a case involving a dispute over cargo damage in a train wreck. The court ruled unanimously that a contract negotiated as part of a federal maritime law protects Norfolk Southern Railway Co. (search) from having to pay large damages, even though the accident happened on land, not at sea.

The accident caused about $1.5 million in damages to machinery that was being shipped from Australia to Huntsville, Ala.

The case is Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Kirby, 02-1028.