(CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to review a case involving double jeopardy jurisdiction between Puerto Rico and the U.S. government, based on the bigger issue of the commonwealth’s autonomy.
In a court petition filed in July, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico asked the high court whether the commonwealth and the federal government are separate sovereigns for the purposes of the U.S. Constitution’s double jeopardy clause.
The commonwealth calls it “the most important case on the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States since the establishment of the commonwealth in 1952,” according to the certiorari petition.
A divided Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled in March that the double jeopardy clause prevents a person who has been tried, acquitted or convicted under federal law from being prosecuted for the same offense under Puerto Rico law. The commonwealth’s high court found that Puerto Rico and the federal government are not “dual sovereigns.”
Puerto Rico says the ruling was a mistake that strips the commonwealth of its authority to enforce its own criminal laws, according to its petition. It cites a law enacted by Congress in 1950 that gave Puerto Ricans the ability to “organize a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption,” the petition states. Puerto Ricans approved the commonwealth’s constitution in a 1952 referendum.
“It follows that the laws of Puerto Rico enacted pursuant to that constitution flow from sovereign authority delegated by the people of Puerto Rico, not from sovereign authority delegated by Congress,” the commonwealth says. “The Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s contrary conclusion is not only wrong, but deepens a direct and acknowledged circuit conflict on the specific question [of] whether the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the federal government are separate sovereigns for federal double jeopardy purposes.”
The underlying case involves the 2008 indictment by Puerto Rico prosecutors of Luis Sanchez Valle on charges of the illegal sale of firearms and ammunition and illegal carrying of firearms. While that prosecution was pending, Valle was indicted by a federal jury for the illegal sale of firearms and ammunition.
Valle pleaded guilty to the federal charges and received a five-month prison sentence followed by house arrest and supervised release. He filed a motion to dismiss the Puerto Rico charges, which was granted by a trial court based on the double jeopardy clause.
A similar situation occurred with Valle’s co-respondent Jaime Gomez Vazquez, according to court records. The commonwealth appealed both dismissals, and a Puerto Rico appeals court reversed the trial court decisions. But the Puerto Rico Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the commonwealth has no claim to sovereignty unless it becomes a state.
Per its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any comment on its decision to consider Puerto Rico’s case.
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