Double Jeopardy Tested in U.S. Supreme Court

Sometimes it is interesting to see how issues that look like they have nothing to do with criminal justice end up affecting criminal justice. Such was the case this week, when the United States Supreme Court made a ruling based upon whether Puerto Rico was a sovereign state or not.

Can Puerto Rico Prosecute?

We know that Puerto Rico is not a U.S. State. In fact, it has its own constitution and its own government, a power given to it by the United States in 1950. Still, the country is tied to the U.S. Federal Government and its powers are provided to it by the U.S. Essentially, Congress makes the rules. So can Puerto Rico prosecute someone who has already been prosecuted by a federal court without running afoul of the double jeopardy clause?

The question came to the high court after a man plead guilty in a U.S. court to gun dealing charges. Puerto Rico then wanted to separately prosecute that same man, for the same crimes.

Double Jeopardy

We know that the U.S. Constitution prohibits such a practice as double jeopardy. Once someone is convicted of a crime (or pleads guilty), he can not be tried again for the exact same thing—although the court has stated that a defendant can be tried in state court even if previously tried in federal court and vice versa. This is because the source of state criminal law, are the states themselves—not the federal government.

Often, you may hear of defendants in high profile cases being tried in federal court after a state court has acquitted. This is because an offense may violate laws of both the state and federal government. For example, someone who engages in stock fraud may violate state financial laws, as well as federal SEC laws. The laws and sources of power are different, and thus the defendant may be charged by both entities.

Court Says Puerto Rico is Not Completely Sovereign

Does Puerto Rico have the right to prosecute after a U.S. Federal Court has done so? They would, if they were a separate, sovereign nation unconnected with the United States.

The Court ruled that Puerto Rico was not a sovereign nation, and thus, trying the man there after he pled guilty would violate the double jeopardy clause of the constitution. The justices noted that Puerto Rico’s source of authority was Congress. In fact, Congress approved the Puerto Rican constitution when it was passed, and maintains the power to veto Puerto Rican laws (though it never exercises that power). Thus, because the source of the nation’s laws was ultimately Congress, it could not prosecute the man for something the federal government had already prosecuted him for.

Some justices in dissent felt the decision violated Puerto Rico’s freedoms as an independent nation. With its own government and its own constitution, it should be able to set its own rules, and should not be prohibited from enforcing them independently from U.S. federal courts.

Make sure your constitutional rights are protected from arrest to trial. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights in the criminal justice system.