Justices rule against Puerto Rico in fight over criminal law

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2016 1:55 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against Puerto Rico in a politically charged dispute over the island's power to enforce its own criminal laws.

The justices ruled 6-2 that the U.S. territory can't prosecute people for local crimes if they've already been convicted of similar charges in federal court.

The ruling helps clarify the island's legal status at a time when the issue has caused deep divisions between officials from the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

The court sided with two men who said the principle of double jeopardy prevented Puerto Rico officials from prosecuting them on weapons charges after they had already pleaded guilty to federal charges for the same offense.

Puerto Rico officials had argued that the island could still bring charges under its own laws —something that the 50 states have power to do under the principle of state sovereignty.

Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said Congress remains the "ultimate source" of the island's legal power even though Puerto Rico has its own constitution.

"Put simply, Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges," Kagan said. "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."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, saying that over time, the source of Puerto Rico's criminal law "ceased to be the U.S. Congress and became Puerto Rico itself, its people and its constitution." He was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor whose parents were born in Puerto Rico.

The case is one of two high court disputes over Puerto Rico's legal authority. In the second case to be decided later this month, the justices are considering whether the island can deal with its fiscal crisis by restructuring the debt of its financially ailing public utilities. A lower court said the island does not have that power.

The criminal case involves Luis Sanchez Valle and James Gomez Vazquez, who pleaded guilty in federal court to selling illegal firearms. When Puerto Rican officials later charged them under local laws, they moved to dismiss the charges on double jeopardy grounds.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court ultimately sided with the men, ruling that the island is not a separate sovereign. The Puerto Rican government said that decision stripped the island of the ability to enforce its own criminal laws without federal interference and ignored the power of Puerto Rico's people to pass their own laws.

The Caribbean island has been a territory since the United States acquired it in 1898. It gained some autonomy in 1952 when it adopted its own constitution with the approval of Congress and was allowed to enact its own local laws.

The Obama administration had argued that Puerto Rico's power to enforce local laws really comes from Congress, which in theory could take it away. That position angered Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who complained to the United Nations that the government was reversing its prior position and standing in the way of "meaningful self-government" by the people of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda said the decision will have "a limited impact on criminal prosecution," but added that it is now up to Puerto Rico officials to decide the future of their relationship with the United States.

Ricardo Rossello, president of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, said the ruling demonstrates what he called the fallacy of the island's current political status.

"It is once again proven that we live in a colony," said Rossello, who is running for governor this year. "It's time to join forces to ensure that the will of the people is validated at the polls and obtain the only status option that guarantees us equal treatment like that of other U.S. citizens: statehood."

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Associated Press writer Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.