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A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that states need not adopt any special procedures or remedies to enforce an international treaty that governs local police treatment of foreign nationals when arrested. The 1963 treaty, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, requires that police inform foreign arrestees that they have the right to contact their home country’s consulate. And if the arrestee requests it, the police must inform the consulate of the detention. The case decided Wednesday, Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, was closely watched as a barometer of the ongoing debate over the role of international law and courts in Supreme Court jurisprudence. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the 5-4 majority, used respectful language in discussing the treaty and the International Court of Justice, which is charged with adjudicating disputes under the treaty. But in the end, he wrote, U.S. courts have the final say and can give effect to the treaty without international oversight. Foreign nationals who prove violations of the treaty are not entitled to the suppression of evidence obtained during the arrest or any other procedural favors, Roberts wrote. Roberts also said rulings of the International Court of Justice deserve “respectful consideration” but cannot trump U.S. procedural rules. “Our holding in no way disparages the importance of the Vienna Convention,” wrote Roberts. “It is no slight to the convention to deny petitioners’ claims under the same principles we would apply to an act of Congress, or to the Constitution itself.” But dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, said the ruling represented an “unprecedented” repudiation of a valid treaty and of the international court’s interpretation of the treaty. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer in dissent. Breyer said the ruling gives states free rein to provide no remedy for treaty violations, which “risks weakening respect abroad for the rights of foreign nationals.” Breyer added, “It increases the difficulties faced by the United Nations and other nations who would, through binding treaties, strengthen the role that law can play in assuring all citizens, including American citizens, fair treatment throughout the world.” Breyer’s statement reflects widespread concern, expressed in several amicus briefs filed in the case, that the safety of Americans traveling abroad would be jeopardized if the Court gave approval to weak enforcement of the treaty here. The case before the Court involved Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a Mexican national arrested in Medford, Ore., in 1999 after a gun battle with police. He was read his Miranda rights in English and Spanish but was never informed of his treaty right to have the Mexican Consulate informed of his arrest. He sought to have statements he made to police suppressed because of the treaty violation, but Oregon courts ruled against him, finding that the treaty did not create a judicially enforceable right. A second case decided in the same ruling Wednesday involved Mario Bustillo, a Honduran accused of murder in Springfield, Va., in 1997. He, too, was not informed of his treaty right to contact the Honduran consulate, and after he was convicted he raised the treaty issue on habeas corpus appeal. But Virginia courts said the claim was procedurally barred because he had not raised the issue previously. The high court said the treaty does not require either suppression of evidence or an exception to normal procedural-default rules. But it stopped short of deciding whether the treaty creates any judicially enforceable rights. For that reason, said Georgetown University Law Center professor Carlos Vazquez, Wednesday’s ruling, although disappointing, “could have been worse.” Vazquez, who has written on the consular treaty and supported the plaintiffs, said that by not deciding whether the treaty is enforceable in court, the ruling at least leaves open the possibility that other remedies, such as suits for ineffective assistance of counsel, are available for victims of treaty violations. Law enforcement advocates applauded the ruling. “While police departments should train their officers to comply with the treaty, a technical violation causing no actual harm should not give a windfall to a clearly guilty criminal,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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