United States v. Mercado-Flores

Decision Date04 June 2015
Docket NumberCrim. No. 14–466 (GAG).
Citation109 F.Supp.3d 467
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Jorge MERCADO–FLORES, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico

Julia Meconiates, United States Attorney's Office, San Juan, PR, for Plaintiff.

Johnny Rivera–Gonzalez, San Juan, PR, Luis R. Lugo–Emanuelli, Lugo Emanuelli Law Office, Fajardo, PR, for Defendant.


GUSTAVO A. GELPÍ, District Judge.

On July 17, 2013, a federal grand jury rendered a one-count indictment that charged Defendant Jorge Mercado–Flores with the transportation of a fourteen-year- old female minor within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a). (See Case No. 13–408(GAG) at Docket No. 16.) After extensive plea negotiations, Defendant and the Government entered into a plea agreement whereby Defendant agreed to plead guilty by way of an information to violating 18 U.S.C. § 2421, the transportation of an individual, as opposed to a minor, with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. (See Case No. 14–466(GAG) at Docket No. 6.) Both parties agreed that the mandatory minimum of ten years imprisonment of section 2423(a) was excessive given the particular facts of this case. On July 31, 2014, the court held a change of plea hearing, whereby Defendant filed a waiver of indictment and pled guilty by way of information to 18 U.S.C. § 2421 in criminal case 14–466(GAG). (See Docket Nos. 1, 2, 6, and 7.)

Thereafter, on May 11, 2015, the court sentenced Defendant to fifty-seven months imprisonment, based on a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2421, but reserved judgment on the following jurisdictional matter. (See id. at Docket No. 39.) The court questioned whether section 2421 applies to an offense wholly within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico because unlike section 2423(a), which applies to acts wholly within "any commonwealth, territory or possession of the United States," section 2421 applies only to acts wholly within any "Territory, or Possession of the United States." Compare 18 U.S.C. § 2421 (transportation generally) with 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a) (transportation of minors). Accordingly, the court ordered the Government to address this paramount issue of statutory interpretation. The Government timely filed its brief, arguing that section 2421 does indeed apply to Puerto Rico because despite its commonwealth status, it remains a territory of the United States. (Docket No. 43.)

Upon reviewing the Government's arguments, interpreting the applicable statutes along with the history of the unique relationship between the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and adhering to binding judicial precedent, the court hereby holds that 18 U.S.C. § 2421, which makes it a federal crime to transport any individual within the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity "in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or Possession of the United States," does not apply to a purely intrastate criminal act committed within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Accordingly, the Judgment at Docket No. 44 is hereby VACATED.

I. Discussion
A. Background of the Underlying Penal Statute

In 1910, Congress enacted the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, to prohibit, inter alia, the interstate transportation of women for purposes of prostitution, "debauchery," or "any other immoral purpose." See White–Slave Traffic (Mann) Act, ch. 395, 36 stat. 825 (1910) (codified as first amended at 18 U.S.C. §§ 2421 –2424 ); United States v. Ellis, 935 F.2d 385, 389 n. 4 (1st Cir.1991). Presently, the Mann Act makes it a federal crime to knowingly transport (1) "any individual" with the intent that the individual engage in prostitution or "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense," or (2) a minor with the intent that the minor engage in prostitution or criminal sexual conduct. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 2421 –2424. The language of the following two statutes is critical to the court's present inquiry. Section 2421 provides:

Whoever knowingly transports any individual in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory, or Possession of the United States, with the intent that such individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 2421 (emphasis added). Section 2423(a), in turn, provides:

(a) Transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.—A person who knowingly transports an individual who has not attained the age of 18 years in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any commonwealth, territory or possession of the United States, with intent that the individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, shall be fined under this tile and imprisoned not less than 10 years or for life.

18 U.S.C. § 2423(a) (emphasis added).

Notably, prior to 1999, section 2423(a) did not include the language "in any commonwealth ... of the United States." In 1998, the 105th Congress promulgated Public Law 314, known as the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act. See Pub.L. No. 105–314, 112 Stat. 2974 (1998). Among other amendments, including raising the mandatory minimum penalty, Congress amended section 2423(a) to add "any commonwealth" before "territory or possession of the United States." See 144 CONG. REC. S12257–01, 1998 WL 701518 (daily ed. Oct. 9, 1998) (statement of Sen. Daniel Coats). Also within Public Law 314, Congress amended section 2421 by inserting "or attempts to do so," before "shall be fined" and by striking "five years" and inserting "10 years." See Pub.L. No. 105–314, 112 Stat. 2974 ; 144 CONG. REC. S12257–01, 1998 WL 701518 (daily ed. Oct. 9, 1998).

B. An Abridged Background of the Relevant Events in Puerto Rico's Legal Status

The story of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States is like none other told in our history.1 In 1898, the aftermath of the Spanish–American War resulted in the expansion the United States both to the east and to the west. Upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the United States acquired from Spain the territories of Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific, and Puerto Rico in the Atlantic. Treaty of Peace, December 10, 1898, U.S.-Spain, 30 Stat. 1754; see also Consejo de Salud Playa de Ponce v. Rullan, 586 F.Supp.2d 22, 26 (D.P.R.2008). Subsequently, from 1900 to 1917, Congress promulgated legislation that established the political structure and status of Puerto Rico, which established, inter alia, a local government paralleling that of a state, a bill of rights, and granted United States Citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico.2 See Córdova & Simonpietri Ins. Agency, Inc. v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A.,

649 F.2d 36, 39–41 (1st Cir.1981) (discussing the Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 77 (1900) and the Jones Act, 29 Stat. 951 (1917); Consejo, 586 F.Supp.2d at 33–34 (same)). The purpose of this legislation was to give Puerto Rico the "full power of local self-determination with an autonomy similar to that of the [S]tates and incorporated territories." People of Puerto Rico v. Shell Co., 302 U.S. 253, 261–62, 58 S.Ct. 167, 82 L.Ed. 235 (1937).

Additionally, in 1900 Congress established a territorial federal district court in Puerto Rico that operated just as the federal court of any other state, applying federal law in both civil and criminal proceedings with English as its official language. See Consejo, 586 F.Supp.2d at 34. Despite Puerto Rico's autonomy at this time, "Congress retained major elements of sovereignty. In cases of conflict, Congressional statute, not Puerto Rico law, would apply no matter how local the subject; and Congress insisted that acts of the Puerto Rico legislature be reported to it, retaining the power to disapprove them." Córdova, 649 F.2d at 39–41 (citing the Jones Act) (footnotes omitted). Accordingly, "prior to 1950, Puerto Rico's legal status was closer to that of a 'territory' than of a 'state.' " Id. at 40 (citing Mora v. Mejias, 206 F.2d 377, 386–88 (1st Cir.1953) ).

In 1947, Congress passed the Elective Governor Act, which allowed the residents of Puerto Rico to elect their own governor, within the governmental framework previously set by the Foraker and Jones Acts. See Pub.L. No. 80–362, 61 Stat. 770 (1947). Up to this moment, under both Spanish and American control of the island, Puerto Ricans had never elected the island's governor. Thereafter, in 1950, Congress responded to demands for greater autonomy for Puerto Rico by passing Public Law 600, known as the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act. See Pub.L. No. 81–600, 64. Stat. 319 (1950) (codified at 48 U.S.C. § 731 et seq. ). Congress promulgated the Act "in the nature of a compact" with the people of Puerto Rico to empower them to organize "a government pursuant to a constitution of their own adoption." See 48 U.S.C. § 731b.

In 1952, Puerto Rico held a constitutional convention, and that same year, the voters of Puerto Rico adopted a constitution "within our union with the United States of America," and among the "determining factors in our life" was "our citizenship of the United States of America" and "our loyalty to the principles of the Federal Constitution." Preamble of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, 1 P.R. Laws Ann. p. 207 (1965); see also Examining Board v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 593, 96 S.Ct. 2264, 49 L.Ed.2d 65 (1976). The 82nd Congress approved the proposed Constitution with the exception of two sections that it eliminated, and two amendments that it imposed. See 98 CONG. REC. at 5119–28, 5126–27, 6184–86, 8715 (1952); Pub.L. No. 82–447, 66 Stat. 327 (1952). The people of Puerto Rico thereafter accepted the amendments and "Puerto Rico assumed 'Commonwealth' status." Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. at 593–94, 96 S.Ct. 2264. "[T]he purpose of ...

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