Puerto Ricans reject constitutional changes in upset vote

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Sun Aug 19, 2012 8:50pm EDT

1 of 5. People queue to enter a polling center in Caparra sector in San Juan August 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ana Martinez

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Puerto Rican voters on Sunday unexpectedly rejected a pair of constitutional amendments that would have limited some defendants' right to bail and shrunk the legislature in the U.S. territory to cut costs.

With nearly 83 percent of the precincts counted, the "no" vote was leading 54.22 percent to 45.78 percent on the bail restrictions and 53.45 percent to 46.55 percent on the measure to trim the number of seats in the legislature to 56 from 78, elections officials said.

Governor Luis Fortuno, who supported both proposals, accepted defeat and said that limiting bail for those accused of violent crimes would have been "an important additional tool."

"Unfortunately, it did not pass, but one has to respect the will of the people," Fortuno said while speaking to the Basta Ya committee of relatives of crime victims, whose group names means "Enough."

The defeat was an upset, as a poll published last week by El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, showed broad support for both changes.

The Caribbean island's constitution contains an absolute right to bail, and police said their efforts to prosecute murderers were often hampered because witnesses feared being killed by suspects who were out on bail.

The proposed amendment would have let judges deny bail for those accused of premeditated murder or killings committed during home robberies, sexual assaults or kidnappings. It also would have let them deny bail for those accused of firing guns from motor vehicles or in crowded places or killing law enforcement officers.

About 740,000 of the island's 2.3 million registered voters took part in the election, according to the State Elections Commission.

The referendums were unique in that they did not cut along well-worn political divisions in Puerto Rico, where parties are defined by their positions on whether the territory should become a state or remain a self-governing U.S. commonwealth.

Both proposals had wide support among Puerto Rico's two dominant political parties -- the New Progressive Party, which favors pursuing U.S. statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the status quo.

Members of minority parties such as the Puerto Rico Independence Party complained that shrinking the legislature would make it more difficult for them to win seats. Critics also said the bail restrictions would target the poor.

Longtime Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Ruben Berrios said the vote to defeat the amendments showed "something distinct" in island politics.

"Regardless of the final vote, there is a new Puerto Rico from today," Berrios said. "The leaders of the two ruling parties supported one proposal, and the people and the Puerto Rican Independence Party bet on another."

(Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Editing by Jane Sutton and Paul Simao)

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