The Supreme Court has agreed to examine a case that may have some serious implications for the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The Supreme Court’s blog describes it like this:
Issue: Whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the federal government are separate sovereigns for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution.
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution holds that a person may be put on trial only once before a federal court for a single offense. If someone is tried and acquitted (or convicted) of a crime in a federal court, there can be no further trials in the federal judicial system.
A state, however, may conduct a separate trial involving the defendant. This is because the Double Jeopardy Clause protects against successive prosecutions only by the same sovereign, and states are treated as separate sovereigns under the U.S. Constitution. Territories are not.
Luis Sanchez del Valle was charged in Puerto Rico with crimes related to firearms. He was also tried and convicted by a U.S. Federal court for similar crimes. After his federal case concluded, his attorneys moved to dismiss the charges in the Puerto Rican court, arguing that being tried in Puerto Rico for the same crimes would amount to Double Jeopardy.
The prosecution said that the U.S. has authority to try Mr. Sanchez del Valle for crimes, but that Puerto Rico is separate from the United States and also has its own power to try Mr. Sanchez del Valle as well. In essence, they argued that Puerto Rico has the sovereign power of a state for purposes of Double Jeopardy.
Ultimately, the case reached the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, which sided with Mr. Sanchez del Valle. Puerto Rico belongs to the United States, they said, so Puerto Rico and the U.S. do not have separate authority to try someone for the same crime.
Authority for this position can be found under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), which states: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”
The Puerto Rican government appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case during the coming term.
Congress has said many times that Puerto Rico is a territory and is under the power of the Congress. Will the Supreme Court agree? This question is expected to be answered at the end of the 2015-2016 Supreme Court term, and the results will be interesting.