Torres v. Puerto Rico

LOCATION: Collision between Mr. Montrym’s car and motorcycle

DOCKET NO.: 77-1609
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)

CITATION: 442 US 465 (1979)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1979
DECIDED: Jun 18, 1979

Joseph Remcho -
Roberto Armstrong, Jr. -

Facts of the case


Media for Torres v. Puerto Rico

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 1979 in Torres v. Puerto Rico

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Torres against Puerto Rico.

I think we will wait a moment for the audience to clear.

They seem to have a lot of interest in broadcasting today.

Mr. Remcho, I think you may now proceed whenever you are ready.

Joseph Remcho:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

This case presents the question whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico may constitutionally enact and enforce a statute authorizing its police to conduct indiscriminate warrantless searches of the luggage, packages, bundles and bags of persons arriving in Puerto Rico from the mainland United States.

Warren E. Burger:

Now in that you include I take it the power to examine everything that comes in, just the way customs agents do at Mexican border or anywhere else, is that what you mean to embrace by indiscriminate?

Joseph Remcho:

What I mean to embrace by indiscriminate is as the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico found, the statute Public Law 22 authorizes the individual police officer, not a customs official, but the individual police officer.

Warren E. Burger:

Does it make any difference whether it is a police officer or a customs official or what name you give the person?

Joseph Remcho:

Well, I think it makes a substantial difference.

That goes to the whole question of whether Puerto Rico may in the first place, setup any kind of a customs search.

Warren E. Burger:

That's what I am trying to get at.

Joseph Remcho:

So let me get to that question then directly and take up the others later.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was created by the Commonwealth Compact, but nothing in that Compact reserved to Puerto Rico the right in any fashion to setup its own border between the United States and Puerto Rico.

In fact, with respect to customs, 19 US Code Section 1202(a) specifically includes Puerto Rico within United States customs territory.

The Commonwealth Compact itself and the additional Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, includes a carefully considered set of regulations and a compact between the United States Congress and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico with respect to how those two parties will relate to each other and there is nothing in that compact, which I find which specifically or implicitly authorizes Puerto Rico to setup any kind of a border between itself and the United States.

Warren E. Burger:

You are limiting that of course to travelers from the United States, aren't you?

Joseph Remcho:

Well, that is great, that is what the statute says, but that is what a border is all about; people coming from one place to the other regardless of whether they are residents of Puerto Rico or the United States mainland.

The Commonwealth has taken the position with respect to the border not that they have the power or have indeed created anything like an international border.

The position they took below at least was that they had the power to create a functional equivalent of a border.

And I think that misconstrues this Court's cases with respect to what a functional equivalent of a border is.

As the Court held in Almeida-Sanchez, the functional equivalent of a border is basically the same thing as a border only for practical necessary reasons that border has been moved.

So for example, St. Louis is the functional equivalent of the United States border for a person arriving for the first time in United States and the confluence of two or three roads right near the Mexican-United States border is the functional equivalent of the border and that is the only practical place where US customs officials can conduct their duties.

The defect here is in going back to your initial question is that the border search cases, which allowed even certain exceptions, which setup the functional equivalent system and allowed certain exceptions to normal probable cause, excuse me, to normal search and stop procedures, where search is conducted by customs officials and persons authorized to do that, and that by its very nature, limited the type of the search.

Thurgood Marshall:

Couldn't the United States put policemen on the border between Mexico and the United States?

Joseph Remcho:


Thurgood Marshall:

As such, there is no magic in the word customs, is there?

Joseph Remcho:

There is no magic in the word customs.

You can clearly put one there if there is in fact an international border, but I think the --

Thurgood Marshall:

There is and I am talking about the Mexican border right now.