Does the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibit Puerto Rico from prosecuting defendants for the same crime they were convicted of in federal court?
Two defendants were charged in Puerto Rico court and federal court on the same set of facts and for largely the same crimes. See Luis M. Sanchez Valle v. The People of Puerto Rico, 2015 WL 1317010 (P.R. 2015), at 2a, 4a (pincited to linked document). Each defendant was convicted and sentenced in federal court first, and then moved to dismiss the pending state charges. The defendants argued that the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited Puerto Rico from prosecuting them for the same crimes they were convicted of in federal court. See Id. at 2a–5a. The trial courts granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, but the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals reversed. Relying on the dual sovereignty doctrine, the court held that Puerto Rico, an independent sovereign, could charge the defendants for crimes under the Puerto Rico Constitution. See Id. However, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court reversed, deciding that Puerto Rico had no sovereign status, derived its power to prosecute from the U.S. Constitution, and thereby could not charge the defendants for the same crime. The Supreme Court will decide whether the Puerto Rico Supreme Court was right. See Brief for Petitioner, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at i. Puerto Rico argues that the island is a sovereign state, and that under the dual sovereignty doctrine, there are no double jeopardy concerns. See id. at 19, 22. However, Valle contends that the Puerto Rico has no sovereign status. See Brief of Respondents, Luis M. Sánchez Valle and Jaime Gómez Vásquez at 3. The Court’s decision will affect the balance of the federal system and the dignity of the people of Puerto Rico. See id. at 61.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Are the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Federal Government separate sovereigns for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution?
On September 28, 2008, Luis M. Sanchez del Valle was charged with violating the Puerto Rico Weapons Act by selling ammunition and a firearm without a permit and illegally carrying a firearm. See Luis M. Sanchez Valle v. The People of Puerto Rico, 2015 WL 1317010 (P.R. 2015), at 2a (pincited to linked document). The charges were brought in Puerto Rico state court, the Court of First Instance. While that case was pending, a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico indicted Valle for the same set of facts. See id. The federal jury found that Valle violated 18 U.S.C. by illegally trafficking weapons and ammunition through interstate commerce, and he was eventually sentenced to five months in prison. See id. at 2a–3a. Valle then filed a motion to dismiss the state case under the double jeopardy clause, which he argued prohibited Puerto Rico from prosecuting him for the same criminal offenses he was convicted of in federal court. See id. at 3a. The Court of First Instance agreed, ruling that Valle could not be indicted for the same offense a second time before the same sovereign entity. See Id. The state appealed. See id.
Jaime Gomez Vasquez was also charged in Puerto Rico court with three counts of violating the Puerto Rico Weapons Act. See Valle, 2015 WL at 4a. Vazquez was later charged in federal district court for five counts of violating 18 U.S.C. See Id. In 2010, Vazquez pled guilty to the federal charges and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. See Id. at 5a. Vazquez then filed a motion to dismiss the pending state charges, claiming protection under the double jeopardy clause. See Id. The court granted Vasquez´s motion to dismiss, ruling that the dual sovereignty doctrine does not apply to Puerto Rico because its power to criminally prosecute individuals stems from the federal government. See Id. at 6a. The prosecution appealed. See Id.
The Puerto Rico Court of Appeals consolidated the cases (hereinafter, “Valle”), and reversed the decisions, stating that double jeopardy does not always apply to a person charged by state and federal prosecutors for the same offense. See Vale, 2015 WL at 6a. Following the Puerto Rico Supreme Court precedent established in Pueblo v. Castro Garcia (“Pueblo”), the appeals court concluded that Puerto Rico was a sovereign state under the dual sovereignty doctrine, which permitted the prosecution of the same offense by different sovereigns—in this case, the United States and Puerto Rico. See id. at 31a–32a.
Valle and Vasquez independently appealed to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. See Vale, 2015 WL 6a-7a. The court reversed the Court of Appeals. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court reasoned that Puerto Rico’s power to prosecute individuals stems from a delegation of power from the United States Congress to Puerto Rico. See id. at 66a. The dual sovereignty doctrine did not apply, because Puerto Rico was not a sovereign. Accordingly, the court concluded that Puerto Rico violated Valle’s rights by prosecuting him in a Puerto Rican court after he was convicted in federal court. See id. at 67a. Puerto Rico appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court will determine whether Puerto Rico constitutes a separate sovereign for purposes of double jeopardy analysis. See Brief for Respondents, Luis M. Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez at i. When a crime is committed under the shared jurisdiction of two separate sovereigns, double jeopardy does not apply, because the crime compromises an offense against each sovereign—a law from each respective sovereign has been broken. See Brief for Petitioner, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at 22. Puerto Rico contends that its government is a separate sovereign from the United States because it derives its authority from its constitution, adopted in 1952 as a reflection of the popular will of the people of the island. See id. at 28–30. Valle rejects this formulation and asserts that Puerto Rico is merely a territory to which Congress has delegated elements of quasi-sovereignty, but ultimately not the status of a sovereign state. See Brief for Respondents at 7–11.
WHAT ENTITIES ARE CONSIDERED “SOVEREIGN” UNDER THE U.S. CONSTITUTION FOR DOUBLE JEOPARDY PURPOSES?
For purposes of the double jeopardy clause, Puerto Rico argues that the relevant test of sovereignty is where Puerto Rico gets its power to prosecute. See Brief for Petitioner at 26. If Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power stems from the Puerto Rico constitution, and the United State’s power stems from the U.S. Constitution, then, Puerto Rico concludes, Puerto Rico can be exercise its prosecutorial powers independently, like a U.S. state exercises its own authority to prosecute crimes within its jurisdiction. See id. at 27. Puerto Rico derives this test from two Court cases: United States v. Wheeler and Heath v. Alabama. In Wheeler, the Court determined that a Native American tribe had the power to punish crimes because of its inherent sovereignty, even though Congress could pass laws binding on the tribe. See id. Puerto Rico explains that the Court emphasized the tribe’s “retained sovereignty,” which was not affected by Congress’ plenary power. See id. In Heath, the Court confirmed that individual states are sovereign because they derive their authority to punish from their own constitutions. See id. Puerto Rico asserts that it punishes criminals through the authority granted to it by its own constitution, not federal law. See id. at 28. Accordingly, Puerto Rico claims that it passes the sovereignty test.
Valle contends that Puerto Rico is mischaracterizing the Court’s jurisprudence, and that there is no constitutional basis for treating territories as pseudo-sovereign. See Brief for Respondent at 11–12. In fact, Valle argues that the Constitution explicitly grants Congress plenary power over territories. And Valle maintains that neither Wheeler nor Heath created a “special” test of sovereignty for double jeopardy purposes; rather, the cases reflected a natural understanding of a sovereign’s powers. See id. at 12. Moreover, Valle asserts that the Constitution explicitly recognizes states as sovereigns, by reserving unremunerated powers to them under the Tenth Amendment. See id. Indeed, Valle points to the initial debates surrounding the Constitution’s adopting to show that the Founders were aware of the distinction between states and territories insofar as sovereignty was concerned, and that the subjugation of territories to Congress’ plenary power was deliberate. See id. at 13–14. Valle also challenges Puerto Rico’s reliance on Wheeler, arguing that Native American tribes are considered unique political entities similar to foreign nations under the Constitution, which Puerto Rico is not. See id. at 47–48. Indeed, Valle characterizes the Court’s jurisprudence with respect to the Indian tribes as affirming the tribes’ preexisting sovereignty, something that Puerto Rico does not possess. See id. at 50.
DID PUERTO RICO’S 1952 CONSTITUTION GRANT THE ISLAND SOVEREIGNTY?
Nevertheless, Puerto Rico maintains that the adoption of its constitution in 1952 was an exercise of popular sovereignty permitted by Congress and analogous to the process by which individual states enter the Union. See Brief for Petitioner at 32. Puerto Rico concedes that Congress imposed conditions on approval of Puerto Rico’s constitution, but points out that Congress has commonly required states to drop certain provisions in their constitutions before being admitted as states. See id. at 32–33. And Puerto Rico asserts that the restrictions placed on its constitution were even less burdensome than restrictions placed on most states’ constitutions, because the changes were popularly approved by the people of Puerto Rico. See id. at 33–35. In short, Puerto Rico concludes that Puerto Rico holds a unique position in the federal system; and that the compact between the island and the central government is roughly equivalent to the one the government maintains with the states. See id. at 36–39.
However, Valle likens Puerto Rico to a municipal government that has elements of self-rule, but nevertheless owes its authority to a delegation of power—in this case, from Congress. See Brief for Respondent at 24. Valle looks to Waller v. Florida, where the Court explained that the relationship between territories and the federal government was like that of state and municipal governments. Valle maintains that granting certain aspects of “home rule” does not diminish Congress’ constitutional power over Puerto Rico. See id. at 23–25. Furthermore, Valle contends that Puerto Rico’s attempt to draw an analogy between the approval of its constitution and the admittance of states is misleading. States are admitted, not through the exercise of popular sovereignty, but through the process established by the U.S. Constitution. See id. at 24–25. Even assuming the analogy was valid, Valle asserts that Congress has made unilateral changes to the Puerto Rican Constitution using its plenary power; for example, stripping a provision that guaranteed positive rights and prohibiting its adoption in the future. See id. at 42–43. Valle argues that such a move would have been unconstitutional if it had been attempted with a prospective state. See id.
DOES CONGRESS’ PLENARY POWER UNDER THE TERRITORIAL CLAUSE AFFECT PUERTO RICO’S SOVEREIGNTY?
Puerto Rico maintains that Congress’ plenary power over the territory does not affect the question of whether Puerto Rico is sovereign for double jeopardy purposes. See Brief for Petitioner at 39–40. Puerto Rico asserts that Congress’s ability to apply federal law to the island has no bearing on whether the Puerto Rican government can enforce its own criminal laws, the authority for which is derived from its own constitution. See id. at 41. Puerto Rico claims that as a practical matter, the question of whether Congress could unilaterally invalidate the Puerto Rican Constitution is meaningless, because Congress would never actually do so and has relinquished control over the island’s local affairs. See id. at 41–43.
Valle criticizes Puerto Rico for mistaking Congress’s forbearance as an inability to unilaterally interfere in the island’s political affairs, pointing to a host of instances in which Congress has exercised its plenary power over Puerto Rico since 1952. See Brief for Respondents at 46. For example, Valle asserts, Congress restricts Puerto Rico’s ability to impose taxes and borrow money from its original organic statute, and required that Puerto Rico follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, both of which would be unconstitutional as applied to the states. See id. at 45–46.
The federal system of government and the dignity of the Puerto Rican people are potentially at stake in this case. The Court will consider whether the dual sovereignty doctrine applies to Puerto Rico. See Brief for Petitioner, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at i. Puerto Rico argues that Puerto Rico is a sovereign, and thus may prosecute a person in a Puerto Rican court for the same criminal offense that person was prosecuted for in federal court. See id. at 22. But Valle contends that the dual sovereignty doctrine does not apply because Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign from the federal government. See Brief for Respondents, Luis M. Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez at 3.
BALANCING THE FEDERAL SYSTEM WITH THE RISK FOR LITIGATION
Puerto Rico asserts that the doctrine of dual sovereignty effectively promotes the federal system governing the United States and Puerto Rico. See Brief for Petitioner at 25–26. Puerto Rico claims that the federal system “split the atom of sovereignty” to give citizens the protections afforded by two, sometimes competing, governments. See Id. at 25 (internal quotation omitted). Of course, state or territorial law may differ from the law of the federal government, but Puerto Rico contends that the doctrine protects citizens from the application of competing laws, preventing sovereignties from “indirectly hinder[ing] or defeat[ing] the policy of the other.” See Id. at 25–26.
Valle contends that Puerto Rico’s concept of sovereignty is too abstract and would cause a floodgate of litigation. See Brief for Respondents at 53, 55. Valle claims that sovereignty, as defined by Puerto Rico, could be conferred to municipalities, raising the issue of when municipalities are “sovereign.” See id. at 55. The United States, in support of Valle, suggests that “[t]he Constitution does not contemplate ‘sovereign territories,’” and that only states and Native American nations can claim sovereignty. See Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Respondents at 16. Valle argues that Puerto Rico does not appreciate the consequences of granting the territory state-like status. For example, Valle explains that Puerto Rican citizens—who do not currently pay federal income taxes because Congress has plenary power to set taxes in territories different from the states—may be subject to the taxes like any other state. See Brief for Respondents at 57. Indeed, Valle contends that vague and broad litigation may occur on a wide range of issues. See id. at 56.
DIGNITY OF THE PUERTO RICAN PEOPLE
Denying the recognition of sovereignty, according to Puerto Rico, in the face of its adopting a constitution, will undermine the dignity of the Puerto Rican people. See Brief for Petitioner at 45. Ultimately, Puerto Rico suggests that reversing the Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision will demonstrate that Puerto Rico is similar practically, if not constitutionally, to the fifty states in the U.S. See id.
Valle disagrees with Puerto Rico’s assertion that sovereignty gives dignity to the Puerto Rican people. See Brief for Respondents at 60. Valle claims that Puerto Rico’s assertion unfairly criticizes the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, particularly Judge Torruella, a firm defender of Puerto Rican rights. See Id. Furthermore, Valle argues that recognition of sovereignty in this case may send a deeply troubling message that sovereignty is only recognized when it would least benefit the Puerto Rican people, by depriving them of their constitutional right against double jeopardy. See id. at 61.
Brief for Respondents, Luis M Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez at 6. Puerto Rico contends that its power to prosecute stems from its constitution, and thus raises no double jeopardy concerns. See Brief for Petitioner, The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico at 18–19, 32. Valle asserts that Puerto Rico has no sovereign status and derives its power from a delegation of power from Congress. See Brief for Respondents at 7, 14, 45. The decision will affect the balance of power between the federal government and the Puerto Rico government, and the dignity of the people of Puerto Rico.
- Jacob Gershman, Supreme Court Takes Up 13 New Cases, The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 1, 2015).
- Richard Pildes, Supreme Court Preview: Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, The Federalist Society (Oct. 8, 2015).