Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle

PETITIONER:Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
RESPONDENT:Luis M. Sanchez Valle, et al.
LOCATION: Supreme Court of Puerto Rico

DOCKET NO.: 15-108
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Puerto Rico

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2015
ARGUED: Jan 13, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 09, 2016

Christopher Landau – for the petitioner
Nicole A. Saharsky – Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae for the respondents
Adam G. Unikowsky – for the respondents

Facts of the case

In 2008, Luis M. Sanchez Valle was charged in federal for illegally trafficking in weapons and ammunition in interstate commerce and, on substantially the same facts, was charged with several violations of the Puerto Rico Weapons Act. After Sanchez Valle was convicted in federal court, he filed a motion to dismiss the claims under Puerto Rican law and argued that the constitutional protection against double jeopardy meant that he could not be prosecuted in Puerto Rico for the same offenses for which the federal court had already convicted him. The prosecution argued that, pursuant to the precedent the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico established inPuerto Rico v. Castro García, the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico derive their authority from different sources and therefore can punish substantially the same offenses without implicating the constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

The trial court dismissed the charges against Sanchez Valle and held that he could not be indicted twice for the same offenses by the same sovereign entity, and because Puerto Rico and the United States both derive their authority from the United States Constitution, they are the same sovereign entity. The Court of Appeals consolidated this case with several others presenting the same question and held that, under current law, a person could punished for the same offenses in both federal and Puerto Rican court without implicating the protection against double jeopardy. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico reversed and held that the U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding double jeopardy was binding on the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, and therefore thePuerto Rico v. Castro García precedent was incorrect and the Puerto Rican charges against Sanchez Valle should be dismissed.


Are the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. federal government separate sovereigns for the purpose of double jeopardy?

Media for Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 13, 2016 in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 09, 2016 in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has the opinion of the Court this morning in case 15-108, Puerto Rico versus Valle.

Elena Kagan:

Usually the Double Jeopardy Clause protects a defendant from being tried more than once for the same offense, but there’s an exception to that rule.

If two entities are separate sovereigns, and I will talk about that term in a minute, the Double Jeopardy Clause drops out of the picture and the two governments can prosecute that same defendant for the same conduct.

First, the one can go, then the other.

That exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause is called the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine.

The prime example of how it works is that both the state government and the federal government can prosecute a person for the same criminal act.

In this case we decide whether Puerto Rico and the United States count as separate sovereigns under that doctrine.

Two Puerto Rico residents each sold a gun to an undercover police officer.

Both Puerto Rico and the United States charged them with selling guns illegally.

After the defendants pleaded guilty to the federal charges, they argued that the Puerto Rico indictments had to be dismissed because of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico agreed and we agree too.

Puerto Rico and the United States are not separate sovereigns for double jeopardy purposes and so they cannot both prosecute a single defendant for the same conduct.

Only one of them can, whichever one goes first.

Now in some ways it’s odd to say that Puerto Rico and the US aren’t separate sovereigns.

In the mid-20th century, the people of Puerto Rico ratified their own Constitution and formed their own political entity, the Commonwealth.

And although the Commonwealth is closely tied to the United States, it has broad scale autonomy over all local affairs including the enforcement of criminal law.

So when one commonly understood sense of the term, Puerto Rico is sovereign, but the key to our decision is the particular and maybe even the peculiar focus of the dual sovereignty test.

Sovereignty in this context ignores many qualities ordinarily associated with that term.

For this purpose we don’t care whether one government exercises control over another, whether a government manages its own affairs or whether a government has the ability to make and enforce its own criminal laws.

Instead, we’ve focused on a different and narrower question.

Do two prosecuting entities, here one from the US and one from Puerto Rico, draw their power from the same ultimate source?

In other words, this is a historical test.

We look not to the fact of self-rule, but to where it came from.

So for example the states are separate sovereigns from the federal government because the state’s power to punish comes from the independent authority belonging to them before they formed the union.

By contrast, a city is not a separate sovereign from a state because no matter how much home rule authority the city enjoys, it received its power from the state in the first instance.

And under this historically focused test, Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual sovereignty doctrine because its power to prosecute originally derived from the US Government.

Congress authorized Puerto Rico’s Constitution making process in the first place.

The people of the territory couldn’t legally have initiated that process on their own and Congress had to approve the constitution that came out of that process.

The Puerto Rican peoples own ratification couldn’t have turned the Constitution into law.

So put simply, Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges.

Elena Kagan:

That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico’s prosecutors just as it is for the US Governments.

And so the two governments cannot both prosecute a same, single person for the same criminal conduct.

The Double Jeopardy Clause applies and prevents that result.

We accordingly affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.

Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas joined.

Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joined.