Justices Rule Against Puerto Rico In Fight Over Criminal Law
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.
“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.
The Associated Press and CB Reporters Eva Llorens Vélez and Dennis Costa contributed to this story.