Torres v. Puerto Rico

Torres v. Puerto Rico

Patrick Moseley, December 2016

Beginning with the end of the Revolutionary War, America has spread the wings of democracy across the globe. The Western United States was not the only region to be influenced, as American ideologies reached across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. During this expansion a battle has continued to rage on how the people of these newly acquired lands were to be accepted into the Union. The issue of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the government of the United States, along with other territories, has been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court. Particularly interesting is the case Torres v. Puerto Rico (1979), as it maintains the very basic argument of the insular cases regarding the authority of the Constitution in territories. [1]

Under the fourth Amendment of the Constitution, citizens are protected from any unlawful search and seizure of property without probable cause. This essentially prevents the government or any of its law enforcing bodies from storming into your house and seizing any of your personal property, especially in regards to evidence for a crime. As you will later learn, the protections of the Constitution only reach as far as its laws do. Creating a question of the Constitution’s power in the nation’s territorial possessions.

After being won by the United States from Spain in 1898, the island of Puerto Rico was put under full control of the government in 1901. Since then, the federal government has played a large role in the operations of the commonwealth. Currently, all those born in Puerto Rico are natural citizens of the United States and reserve the rights granted to them under the Constitution, except for national suffrage. Citizens of the island are able to vote for local governments established by the constitution of Puerto Rico, a document modeling the democratic ideals of the U.S. Constitution. [2] This was the case for territories dating back 1850 with the signing of the Compromises. [3] While the territory is enabled some of its own sovereignty, its government is expected to uphold the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

First, let’s look at the insular case in question. In 1975 the territorial government of Puerto Rico put into place a new statute of law allowing the search of all American tourists and their luggage as they enter the country. [4] This takes us to two years following the implementation of Public Law 22. A resident of Miami, Florida; Terry Torres was visiting the island of Puerto Rico. The customs officials were suspicious of his mannerisms and decided to check his luggage. According to the new law, this was grounds for a search of Mr. Torres’ possessions. Police uncovered an ounce of marijuana and $250,000 dollars of cash. Following a trial, he was found guilty of violating Puerto Rico’s Controlled Substance Act, [5] and sentenced to serve one to three years in prison.

Terry Torres felt his conviction violated the fourth amendment and appealed the decision of the lower court, to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. [6] To declare a current law unconstitutional, a majority of the Justices hearing the case must agree. In this instance, only seven of the nine Justices heard the Torres case. Four of them felt Public Law 22 was constitutional, while the other three felt it was unconstitutional. Without the majority vote, Public Law 22 stood as constitutional and remained enacted. This meant that Mr. Torres original sentence would stand.

Not satisfied with the results, Mr. Torres decided to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. This appeal also challenged the search and seizure of his possessions, declaring the law enabling this action was illegal and a violation of his rights under the Constitution. The Supreme Court supported his claim and unanimously declared that Public Law 22 was indeed unconstitutional. Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court on June 18, 1979. The court used three points for their reasons Public Law 22 was violating the Fourth Amendment.

The first point, essentially summarizes the whole argument of the Federal government’s power within Puerto Rico. Congress had allowed the people of Puerto Rico to draft its own Constitution, ensuring the document included language similar to the United States version. Considering the approval of Congress was necessary for the document to be active, it known that this new Constitution has its own version of the fourth amendment.

Secondly, it was determined the process of searching Mr. Torres’ baggage “did not satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment…” In short, the pure reason of the officers feeling a visitor is nervous, does not provide enough probable cause for a search of their possessions. There is even the inclusion that a warrant must be obtained before carrying out a search, except in situations that this cannot be fulfilled.

And finally, the idea Puerto Rico does not have the sovereignty to control entry of the territory by citizens of the United States. The borders of Puerto Rico essentially do not act as an international entity in regards to Americans. This is where the territory is treated like a State, allowing United States citizens to freely enter the borders of the commonwealth. No exceptions of the warrant and probable cause requirements apply to Americans entering the territory. Once again, the federal government is flexing its muscle against sovereign powers given to a territory. Even in cases of public health and safety a warrant is still required.

This case meant a lot more for the power of the United States government over the territory of Puerto Rico, than it did strictly for the protection of the fourth amendment. The decision of the Supreme Court helped assert the role of Federal government within the territory of Puerto Rico and subsequent unincorporated territories. The people of Puerto Rico are given the right to self-governance and have the ability to elect their own governors and local leaders. So long as the laws enacted by the government do not violate the Constitution of the United States, then they were able to “rule” themselves. The only major difference is the lack of national representation, the only assumed right of American citizens denied to the residents of Puerto Rico.

The practice of strong federal influence in American colonies is not unique to the cases of modern territorial holdings of the United States. Previous to the drafting of the Constitution primitive American government enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. The document establishing the territories of the Ohio River Valley was modeled after the British colonial system, with the exception that a territory could join the Union. Under the Ordinance, the territory was subject to intrusion by the federal government until it was able to meet the requirements for statehood. To many settlers of the territory it compared to the oppression of the English regime. Despite contradicting revolutionary ideas of self-governance for the colonies, the Constitution gives Congress power over the administration of any territorial government.

This question of authority has always been tossed around American government since it started colonizing the West shortly following the Revolution. And the answer has always been, that the Federal government has ultimate control over the sovereignty of the land. This would make one assume, that the ideas represented by the Constitution would follow the power of the federal government. However, as we have seen in the past. Especially in regards to the insular territories, the Federal government is careful of which powers to grant while also insisting the supremacy of the Constitution throughout all associated lands. The case of Torres v. Puerto Rico is no different. We see the United States exercising its Constitutional power over its territories, [7] this practice even occurs with States regarding laws that they have passes. In the end the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land. Even though the States and territories have the ability to form separate governments, they are limited by the Constitution in what powers they are granted.


[1] “Torres v. Puerto Rico” ACLU Pro’s & Con’s.

[2] According to United States Law, it was required the Constitution of Puerto Rico be approved first by the United States before being enacted. 48 U.S. Code § 731 d- “Ratification of constitution by Congress” Legal Information Institute.

[3] A series of congressional acts, in 1850, used to suppress tensions over slavery. It allowed the legislative bodies of New Mexico and Utah to create their own legislative bodies, who had the power of drafting the territorial constitution.

[4] The Police of Puerto Rico is hereby empowered and authorized to inspect the luggage, packages, bundles, and bags of passengers and crew who land in the airports and piers of Puerto Rico arriving from the Unites States; to examine cargo brought into the country, and to detain, question, and search those persons whom the Police have ground to suspect of illegally carrying firearms, explosives, narcotics, depressants, or stimulants or similar substances. Pub. Law 22, P.R. Laws Ann., Tit. 25 § 1051 et seq. (Supp. 1977)

[5] P.R. Laws Ann., Tit. 24, 2404 (Supp. 1977)

[6] As with the Supreme Court of the United States, Puerto Rico’s version is the overseer of their Constitution.

[7] The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States… U.S. Const. art. 4 sec. 3 cl. 2.

Further Reading

Lawson, Gary; Seidman, Guy. The Constitution of Empire: Territorial Expansion and American Legal History (Yale University Press, 2004).

Malavet, Pedro A. Critical America: America’s Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico (NYU Press, 2004).

Raustiala, Kal. Does the Constitution Follow the Flag? : The Evolution of Territoriality in American Law (Oxford University Press, 2009).

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