Because Puerto Rico is a territory — and a not a State, the insular government cannot prosecute an individual in a local court tried for the same crime in Federal court, the territorial Supreme Court ruled late Friday.
Its reasoning was that the authority for both cases would have the same origin: the Federal government.
State governments can prosecute individuals taken to court by the Federal government for the same crime because States have sovereignty (authority) that they have not delegated to the Government of the United States.
The U.S. Government, however, has full sovereignty over territories.
The Constitutions of the U.S. and Puerto Rico both prohibit “double jeopardy” (exposure to multiple prosecutions) for the same crime when the source of the sovereignty underlying the laws to be applied is the same, the territory’s highest court noted.
It issued an opinion concluding that, “according to the constitutional protections against double exposure and because Puerto Rico is not a Federal State, a person who has been acquitted, convicted, or exposed for the same offense in the Federal courts cannot be tried in the courts of Puerto Rico.”
The ruling overturned a 1988 decision of the court.
It may well lead to petitions for release from people held in territorial prison who have also been convicted of the crime by the Federal government.
Among other consequences, this could save the financially hard-stressed insular government the costs of incarceration as well as of prosecution of individuals.
It will also require greater coordination between Federal and territorial prosecutors.
Eight of the nine justices agreed that territorial prosecution of someone tried by the Federal government for a crime was unconstitutional.
Associate Justice Rafael Martinez Torres wrote the majority opinion on behalf of six.
Upsets “Commonwealth Status” Claim
The lone dissenter, Annabelle Rodriguez, wrote that the ruling upset a belief regarding the insular government. This is the belief of ‘commonwealthers’ that the Federal approval of the constitution of the insular government relinquished U.S. sovereignty over the territory.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Puerto Rico exercises authority similar to that which States possess over local matters — but subject to ultimate Federal authority. It has also found that the Congress continues to have authority regarding Puerto Rico under the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Territory Clause empowers each Congress to make whatever rules needed for territories so long as it does not violate the fundamental rights of individuals. The power of each Congress over Puerto Rico would prevent one Congress from giving up the power over the territory of future Congresses.
A Congress can only give up this broad power by making a territory a State of the U.S. or a state internationally: a nation.
Rodriguez protested that the decision of the majority “goes to the heart of the legitimacy of our political system” — referring to the vision of that system held by her faction of the “commonwealth” party.
Another wing of the party recognizes that Puerto Rico is a territory, however. That wing wants Puerto Rico to become a nation in an association with the U.S. – “free association.” Indeed, the name of the insular government in Spanish — determined by a constitutional convention controlled by members of the party – is made up of words that translate as the “Associated Free State of Puerto Rico.”
Because Puerto Rico is a possession of the U.S. vs. associated with it, not free of the U.S., and not a State of the U.S., the convention named the insular government the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” in English.
The word “commonwealth” does not refer to a political status. The U.S. has four States and two territories that use the word in the formal names of their local governments.
Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla is a member of Rodriguez’s faction of the “commonwealth” party. His administration has not yet answered the question of whether it will appeal the Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Puerto Ricans rejected territory status in a plebiscite under local law held at the time of Garcia Padilla’s very narrow election over a statehood party incumbent in November 2012. The territory petitioned for a transition to U.S. statehood by 61.2% vote in the plebiscite.
Fourteen months ago, the Federal government enacted a law for another plebiscite because Garcia Padilla and majorities of each house of Puerto Rico’s local legislature made up of members of both sides of the “commonwealth” party elected along with Garcia disputed the 2012 plebiscite.
Options for the plebiscite under Federal law would have to be able to “resolve” the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status and be found by the U.S. Department of Justice to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.
These conditions limit the plebiscite to statehood and nationhood options. Territory status — like the “commonwealth status” supported by the faction of the “commonwealth” party to which Garcia and Rodriguez belong — cannot be an option because Puerto Ricans would be able to continue to petition for statehood or nationhood as long as Puerto Rico is subject to the authority over territories of each Congress.
The conditions also prevent the plebiscite from offering voters impossible proposals, such as the “commonwealth” party’s official status proposal. The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional committee leaders of both national political parties have rejected it for constitutional and other reasons.
Party leaders have been trying to agree on a new status proposal since last August but they have been deadlocked between territory and nation plans.