Torres v. Puerto Rico
Decided on June 18, 1979; 442 US 465

 Florida man challenges Puerto Rican law after airport police find marijuana in his luggage


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (drugs), 4th Amendment


B. Legal Questions Presented:

Did Public Law No. 22, 25 L.P.R.A. § 1051-1054, unlawfully abridge the right to travel by subjecting individuals to indiscriminate, warrantless searches without probable cause upon entry into the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico from other parts of the United States?

Did Article V, § 4 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico violate the Due Process and Supremacy Clauses of the United States Constitution by precluding the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico from reversing appellant's conviction for possession of marijuana, even though a majority of the justices who heard the case were convinced that the conviction was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

A. Background:

In 1976, Appellant Terry Torres, a resident of Florida, flew from Miami to San Juan., Puerto Rico. Upon arriving at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, police officers searched his luggage without having a warrant or probable cause to suspect that he was carrying anything illegal. This search was pursuant to a Puerto Rico statute (Public Law 22) authorizing police to search the luggage of any person arriving in Puerto Rico from the United States. The search revealed one ounce of marijuana, a wooden pipe bearing marijuana residue, and approximately $250,000 in cash. Petitioner was charged based on this search and subsequently convicted of a drug violation under Puerto Rico law.

On appeal, Mr. Torres contended that the search violated the US constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches. While ruling, seven of the eight justices of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court participated in considering the appeal; four of the seven concluded that Public Law 22 violated the Fourth Amendment. Three justices held Public Law 22 constitutional. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Thereafter, the petitioner sought review in the US Supreme Court and the hight court granted certiorari.  
B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

Joseph Remcho argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the brief were Robin B. Johansen, Celedonio Medin Lozada Hernandez, and Celedonio Medin Lozada Gentile.
Roberto Armstrong, Jr. argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Hector A. Colon Cruz.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The warrantless search and seizure of personal luggage in appellant’s possession was conducted without probable cause, in the absence of exigent circumstance, and in direct violation of appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights. Article V, Section 4 of the Constitution of Puerto Rico which prevented the majority of the justices before whom appellant argued his state court appeal from entering an order reversing his conviction despite their opinion that the convictions was unconstitutional, violates the supremacy clause and abridges appellant’s rights to equal protection and due process." –ACLU brief in Torres v. Puerto Rico 
"This Honorable Court is without jurisdiction to entertain the present appeal because appellant did not seasonably raise before the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico the federal questions upon which jurisdiction may be sustained and as a result an appealable final judgment or decree is not presented to the Court. The question of Federal Supremacy, first raised by defendant on appeal, might be decisive in the case and a ruling thereon by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is essential to the formulation of a final judgment or decree appealable to this court. Should the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, upon consideration of the issue, find that the Supremacy Clause bars the operation of Article V, Sec. 4 of the Puerto Rico Constitution, the four to three opinion entered in the case would render this case moot." Respondent Brief in Torres v. Puerto Rico
Opposing Side
Bruce J. Ennis and Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal. No brief of amicus curiae urging affirmance was filed.

"The search of appellant's baggage pursuant to Public Law 22 did not satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment as we heretofore have construed it. First, the grounds for a search must satisfy objective standards which ensure that the invasion of personal privacy is justified by legitimate governmental interests. The governmental interests to be served in the detection or prevention of crime are subject to traditional standards of probable cause to believe that incriminating evidence will be found. Yet Public Law 22 does not require, and the officers who made the search challenged here did not have, probable cause for such belief. Second, a warrant is normally a prerequisite to a search unless exigent circumstances make compliance with this requirement impossible. Yet, Public Law 22 requires no warrant, and none was obtained before appellant's bags were searched.

The decisions on which Puerto Rico seeks to erect its theory of 'intermediate boundaries' do not reflect any geographical element of Fourth Amendment doctrine, however, but are based on a variety of considerations which have no bearing on this case. Public Law 22 cannot be justified by any analogy to customs searches at a functional equivalent of the international border of the United States. The authority of the United States to search the baggage of arriving international travelers is based on its inherent sovereign authority to protect its territorial integrity. By reason of that authority, it is entitled to require that whoever seeks entry must establish the right to enter and to bring into the country whatever he may carry. Puerto Rico has no sovereign authority to prohibit entry into its territory; as with all international ports of entry, border and customs control for Puerto Rico is conducted by federal officers. Congress has provided by statute that Puerto Rico must accord to all citizens of the United States the privileges and immunities of its own residents.

Public Law 22 also may not be sustained by analogy to state inspection provisions designed to implement health and safety legislation. By a vote of four to three the Puerto Rico Supreme Court rejected appellee's attempt to characterize Public Law 22 as a health and safety measure, finding instead that it was enacted for the purpose of enforcing criminal laws. In any event, health and safety inspections are subject to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement unless they fall within one of its recognized exceptions, and must be based on a 'plan containing specific neutral criteria.'
In any event, Puerto Rico's law enforcement needs are indistinguishable from those of many states. Puerto Rico is not unique because it is an island; like Puerto Rico, neither Alaska nor Hawaii are contiguous to the continental body of the United States. Moreover, the majority of all the states have borders which coincide in part with the international frontier of the United States; virtually all have international airport facilities subject to federal customs controls.

We therefore hold that the search pursuant to Public Law 22 violated constitutional guarantees; accordingly, evidence obtained in the search of appellant's luggage should have been suppressed. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Burger, W.  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Joined concurring opinion)
  • Stewart, P.  Pro (Joined concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro (Joined concurring opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.