U.S. Law Trumps World Treaty, High Court Says

Times Staff Writer

Stating that American law outweighs an international treaty, the Supreme Court said Wednesday that foreign criminals held in state prisons did not have a right to reopen their cases if their rights under the Vienna Convention had been violated.

The 6-3 ruling spares state prison officials a major headache. If the high court had ruled the other way, thousands of state inmates who were not U.S. citizens could have sought to have their convictions reversed.

The international treaty, drafted in 1963, seeks to protect foreigners, including Americans traveling or living abroad. It requires that officials notify the home-country consulate when a foreigner is arrested or held for “pending trial.”

Despite its clear terms, police and prosecutors in the United States have failed to notify foreign criminal suspects that they have a right to the help of their nation’s consulate.


Two years ago, the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, took up an appeal from the governments of Mexico and Germany. The court, based in The Hague, ruled that the treaty gave individuals a right to reopen their cases if they did not get the proper notification.

But the Supreme Court said Wednesday that it was not bound to follow that ruling.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. acknowledged that treaties ratified by the Senate were part of American law. Nonetheless, under the U.S. Constitution, the power to interpret the law and treaties “is vested in one Supreme Court,” he said.

He might as well have added: It does not sit in The Hague.


Roberts said the World Court’s ruling was entitled to “respectful consideration,” but “we conclude that it does not compel us to reconsider our understanding of the [Vienna] Convention.”

In the past, the high court said the treaty did not give foreign-born inmates facing a death sentence a right to reopen their cases, and the court reaffirmed that rule Wednesday in a pair of cases involving prisoners in Oregon and Virginia.

Generally, American law requires criminal defendants to exercise their rights at the time of their arrest or at their trial, Roberts said. Otherwise, these rights are subject to the “procedural default” rule, and it is too late to raise them.

Mario Bustillo, a citizen of Honduras, is serving a 30-year prison term in Virginia for clubbing a man with a baseball bat outside a restaurant in 1997. The man died a few days later, and Bustillo was identified as the killer. Virginia authorities failed to notify the Honduran consulate, and Bustillo appealed, seeking to have his case reopened.

Moises Sanchez-Llamas, a native of Mexico, said his confession in a police shooting should be suppressed because he was not told of his rights. He shot and wounded an Oregon police officer and was later given Miranda warnings in English and Spanish. He made several incriminating statements, was convicted of attempted murder and received a sentence of 20 years in prison.

The chief justice said it would be “extraordinary” and “startling” to throw out the evidence in these cases, particularly since other nations that signed the treaty do not suppress evidence. “The exclusionary rule as we know it is an entirely American legal creation,” he said.

“We conclude, even assuming the Convention creates judicially enforceable rights, that suppression is not an appropriate remedy for a violation [of it], and that a state may apply its regular rules of procedural default,” he said in Sanchez-Llamas vs. Oregon.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter dissented. They said that in some instances, the states should be forced to reopen cases when the failure to notify a defendant of his rights proved to be crucial.


In recent years, some states and local law enforcement have made an effort to notify foreign-born suspects of their rights under the Vienna Convention.

Tom Dressler, a spokesman for the California attorney general’s office, said the state told law enforcement six years ago that officers must advise foreign nationals of their rights.