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Justices Rule Against Puerto Rico In Fight Over Criminal Law

By on June 9, 2016

The Supreme Court says Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory without the independent powers of a sovereign state when it comes to enforcement of criminal law.

The justices’ 6-2 ruling on the Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle case says Congress is the ultimate source of the island’s legal power even though Puerto Rico has its own constitution.

Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court of the United States

“The Double Jeopardy Clause bars Puerto Rico and the United States from successively prosecuting a single person for the same conduct under equivalent criminal laws,” reads the court’s  decision, which was released Thursday morning. [Link to full document here.]

The Supreme Court was slated to answer the question of whether Puerto Rico and the United States are separate sovereigns for purposes of the double jeopardy clause, which provides that a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offense. The case involves whether two individuals convicted for weapons violations by federal court can be prosecuted for the same crime by a local court.

To make that decision, the top court had to decide what is “the ultimate source” of the commonwealth’s authority to prosecute. If the local and federal courts derive their prosecutorial power from the same ultimate source, they are not separate sovereigns and there is double jeopardy. It they are derived from different sources, then the local Justice Department can prosecute.

The local Justice Department had stated that Puerto Rico obtained its own sovereignty after drafting a constitution in 1952,  but attorneys from the Legal Aide Society, which is representing the individuals, were defending a Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling that says the island is still a territory that derives its power from the U.S. Congress.

“In 1950, Congress enacted Public Law 600, which authorized the people of Puerto Rico to organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption,” reads the court ruling’s syllabus. “Those constitutional developments were of great significance—and, indeed, made Puerto Rico ‘sovereign’ in one commonly understood sense of that term.”

“But the dual-sovereignty test focuses not on the fact of self- rule, but on where it first came from,” the document goes on to state. “And in identifying a prosecut­ ing entity’s wellspring of authority, the Court has insisted on going all the way back—beyond the immediate, or even an intermediate, lo­ cus of power to what is termed the ‘ultimate source.’ On this settled approach, Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual-sovereignty doctrine.”

The ruling helps clarify the island’s legal status at a time when the issue has caused deep divisions between the U.S. government and the island.

Justice Elena Kagan, a Democratic Party nominee, delivered the majority opinion while Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer wrote dissenting opinions. Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Gingsburg wrote concurring opinions.
Puerto Rico Justice Secretary César Miranda together with Solicitor General Margarita Mercado Echegaray, said that the Supreme Court ruling means in the limited scope of double jeopardy that Puerto Rico does not have the authority to prosecute individuals for the same crimes for which they were convicted by a federal court.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling has an impact limited to criminal prosecutions because it only prevents successive prosecution when the local crime and the federal crime have the same elements or when it is the same crime. When the local and federal crimes are different, there is no impediment for the criminal prosecution in both jurisdictions,” he said in a statement.
However, he added the ruling has other political implications in the island’s relationship with the United States and that it is up to the political classes to decide what to do next.


The Associated Press and CB Reporters Eva Llorens Vélez and Dennis Costa contributed to this story.

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