FULL STORY: “SCOTUS Rules PR Not Sovereign for Purposes of Double Jeopardy

by Gil Hall, gil@prnewsroundup.com

Date posted: 20160609 1107

Updated: 20160609 1156

Affirming a ruling by the Puerto Rican Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled Thursday by a 6-2 margin that for the purpose of double jeopardy, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not a sovereign power.

“[T]he test hinges on a single criterion: the ‘ultimate source’ of the power undergirding the respective prosecutions.”

In the majority ruling for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico vs. Sanchez-Valle, Justice Kagan wrote that the sole test in this case was the “source of power” to prosecute crimes.

“This Court does not examine the extent of control that one prosecuting entity wields over the other, the degree to which an enti­ty exercises self-governance, or a government’s more particular abil­ity to enact and enforce its own criminal laws. Rather, the test hinges on a single criterion: the ‘ultimate source’ of the power undergirding the respective prosecutions.”

“Double Jeopardy” refers to the fifth amendment to the US Constitution’s prohibition against a person’s being tried twice for the same crime.

Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain from its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 until its concession to the United States as a part of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which ended the Spanish American War. Since it was always a colony–and not a sovereign state–it did not bring into its relationship with the United States the ability to prosecute separately crimes under its own laws.

By contrast, states and indian tribes came into to the union of the United States with their own sovereignty intact–that is, they had powers of their own to make laws and rule themselves–, which sovereignty was maintained upon joining the United States.

The fact of Puerto Rico’s having today its own constitution and self-government is a different definition of “sovereign”, Kagan wrote, that is not relevant in this case. “Truth be told … ‘sovereignty’ in this context does not bear its ordinary meaning.”

In September 2008 the defendant, Luis Sánchez Valle, was charged by Commonwealth prosecutors on weapons charges. Before his case could reach trial in the Commonwealth’s courts, however, a federal grand jury indicted him on federal charges for the same crimes. He pled guilty to the federal charges, served  five months in jail, and was released on three year’s probation.

His attorneys appealed the case to the PR appeals court, maintaining that, unlike the 50 states, Puerto Rico does not have its own independent sovereign authority to charge and try defendants. Instead, they argued, it receives its authority to prosecute crimes via powers rooted in the Constitution of the United States–-which, of course, is the same authority used to prosecute Federal crimes.

It is unclear how the Court’s opinion will apply to existing criminal convictions in the Commonwealth that, based on today’s opinion, constituted double jeopardy.

The opinion in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico vs. Sanchez-Valle was written by Justice Kagan and was joined by Roberts, Kennedy and Alito. Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion, which was joined in part by Thomas. Sotomayor and Breyer dissented.


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Recommended Citation: Gil Hall, “”SCOTUS Rules PR Not Sovereign for Purposes of Double Jeopardy”, http://prnewsroundup.com/2016/06/09/sanchezvalle


About Gil Hall

Currently writing book on PR crises. Working title: "Los Pertrechos: the Story of an Economy". Polyglot prone to prolixity in English, German &, Spanish. Based between San Juan and North Carolina. MBA/MHA.