Estipona, Jr. vs. Lobrigo

G.R. No. 226679. August 15, 2017.

FACTS

Petitioner Salvador Estipona, Jr. was found to be in possession of (1) piece heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet of shabu, a dangerous drug.  He was accused for violation of Section 11, Article II of R.A. No. 9165. Under Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165, plea-bargaining is prohibited in all drug cases.

Estipona filed a Motion to Allow the Accused to Enter into a Plea Bargaining Agreement, praying to withdraw his not guilty plea and, instead, to enter a plea of guilty for violation of Section 12, Article II of R.A. No. 9165 with a penalty of rehabilitation in view of his being a first-time offender and the minimal quantity of the dangerous drug seized in his possession.

Judge Lobrigo denied the Motion holding that Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165 expressly prohibits plea-bargaining in drugs cases

Arguing that Sec. 23 of RA No. 9165 is unconstitutional for it encroaches upon the Supreme Court’s rule-making power and therefore violative of the equal protection clause, he filed a Petition before the SC to declare Sec. 23 unconstitutional.

The Solicitor General opposed the petition on the ground that (1) Congress was not impleaded, (2) the constitutionality of the law cannot be attached collaterally, (3) the proper action should have been a petition for relief before the RTC, and (4) the petition fails to satisfy the requisites for judicial review.

ISSUE

WHETHER SECTION 23 OF REPUBLIC ACT NO. 9165, WHICH PROHIBITS PLEA BARGAINING IN ALL VIOLATIONS OF THE SAID LAW, violates the rule-making power of the Supreme Court

HELD

Yes. The Court held that the power to promulgate rules of pleading, practice, and procedure is w/in the exclusive domain of the Supreme Court and is no longer shared w/ the Executive and Legislative depts. The SC’s sole prerogative to issue, amend, or repeal procedural rules is limited to the preservation of substantive rights, i.e., the former should not diminish, increase, or modify the latter. Substantive law is that part of the law which creates, defines, and regulates rights, or which regulates the rights and duties which give rise to a cause of action; as opposed to adjective or remedial law, which prescribes the method of enforcing rights or obtain redress for their violations. The rules on plea bargaining were introduced in order to provide for a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases. It is a way of disposing of criminal charges by agreement of the parties. Plea bargaining is defined as “a process whereby the accused and prosecution work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval.” The essence of the agreement is that both the prosecution and defense make concessions to avoid potential losses. The rules on plea bargaining neither creates a right nor takes away a vested right. A defendant has no constitutional right to plea bargain. No basic rights are infringed by trying him rather than accepting a plea of guilty; the prosecutor need not do so if he prefers to go to trial. Under the present Rules, the acceptance of an offer to plead guilty is not a demandable right but depends on the consent of the offended party and the prosecutor, which is a condition precedent to a valid plea of guilty to a lesser offense that is necessarily included in the offense charged. The reason is that the prosecutor has full control of the prosecution of criminal actions; his duty is always to prosecute the proper offense, not any lesser or graver one, based on what the evidence on hand can sustain. The plea is further addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court on whether to allow the accused to make such plea.

Plea bargaining is allowed during the arraignment, the pre-trial, or even until the prosecution rests its case. If the accused moved to plea bargain subsequent to a bail hearing or after the prosecution rested its case, the rules allow such plea only when the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to establish the guilt of the crime charged. The only basis on which the prosecution and the court could rightfully act in allowing the change in the former plea of not guilty is the evidence on record. The ruling on such motion must disclose the strength and weaknesses of the prosecution’s evidence. Absent any finding on the weight of the evidence on hand, the judge’s acceptance of the defendant’s change of plea is improper and irregular.

Plea Bargaining in Criminal Cases:

Section 2. Plea of guilty to a lesser offense. — At arraignment, the accused, with the consent of the offended party and the prosecutor, may be allowed by the trial court to plead guilty to a lesser offense which is necessarily included in the offense charged. After arraignment but before trial, the accused may still be allowed to plead guilty to said lesser offense after withdrawing his plea of not guilty. No amendment of the complaint or information is necessary.

RULE 118 (Pretrial):

SEC. 1. Pretrial; mandatory in criminal cases.—In all criminal cases cognizable by the Sandiganbayan, Regional Trial Court, Metropolitan Trial Court, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, Municipal Trial Court and Municipal Circuit Trial Court, the court shall, after arraignment and within thirty (30) days from the date the court acquires jurisdiction over the person of the accused, unless a shorter period is provided for in special laws or circulars of the Supreme Court, order a pretrial conference to consider the following:

(a) plea bargaining;

(b) stipulation of facts;

(c) marking for identification of evidence of the parties;

(d) waiver of objections to admissibility of evidence;

(e) modification of the order of trial if the accused admits the charge but interposes a lawful defense; and

(f) such matters as will promote a fair and expeditious trial of the criminal and civil aspects of the case. (Secs. 2 & 3, Cir. 38-98)

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