Puerto Rico loses US Supreme Court sovereignty battle on criminal prosecution

Puerto Rico loses US Supreme Court sovereignty battle on criminal prosecution

By Gary Gately   
The U.S. Supreme Court building (TMN photo)

Washington D.C. (Talk Media News) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Puerto Rico Thursday on sovereignty in criminal prosecutions, saying the territory could not prosecute two men who already pleaded guilty to federal gun charges.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the Caribbean island territory had argued it should have been able to bring the same charges under its own laws, as U.S. states and tribal authorities can do.

Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the majority opinion in the 6-2 decision, said that the U.S. government remains the “ultimate source of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power” and that “the Commonwealth and the United States are not separate sovereigns.”

“Put simply,” Kagan wrote: “Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges. That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico’s prosecutors — as it is for the federal government’s. The island’s constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain.”

In a petition seeking Supreme Court review in the case, Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, the territory had called it “the most important case on the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States since the establishment of the commonwealth in 1952.”

Puerto Rico sought Supreme Court review after the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the two men, Luis Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez, could not be prosecuted by Puerto Rico after they had already pleaded guilty to federal charges for the same offense because that would subject them to double jeopardy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established an exception to the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause for “separate sovereigns” in which states, tribal authorities and the federal government can try a defendant for the same crime. But the Puerto Rico high court ruled the commonwealth cannot claim sovereignty unless it becomes a state.

Cesar Miranda, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice, expressed disappointment over the decision but said he “respects” it.

“The decision rendered in this case, however, has other implications,” Miranda said. “It is now up to the authorities in Puerto Rico, its political class, profiling the itinerary to follow about the future and our legal and political relationship with the United States.”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, arguing Puerto Rico should be granted sovereignty in criminal prosecutions – and noted not only all the states, but also Indian tribes, receive it.

U.S.- Puerto Rico relations stressed

The ruling comes amid mounting tension over U.S.-Puerto Rico relations, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether the territory can restructure debt-laden public utilities.

The United States had argued the case could have far-reaching implications, well beyond criminal prosecutions.

In a Supreme Court brief, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. wrote: “It may affect the federal government’s defense of federal legislation and policies related to Puerto Rico across a broad range of substantive areas, including congressional representation, federal benefits, federal income taxes, bankruptcy, and defense.”

Patrick Rodenbush, a Justice Department spokesman, declined comment.




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