IN a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court (SC) has made prosecutors more powerful than judges when it comes to plea bargaining in drug cases or the acceptance of an offer to plead guilty to a lesser offense.
In a seven-page decision promulgated on Nov. 16, 2020 but was made public just recently, the court's Second Division granted the petition of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) as it reversed and set aside the resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA) on the case of Edwin Reafor.
The decision voided the plea bargaining of illegal drugs cases without the consent or approval of the Department of Justice (DoJ), represented by its prosecutors.
"The orders dated Aug. 24, 2018 and Aug. 29, 2018 and judgment dated Sept. 6, 2018 are annulled and set aside," the ruling penned by Associate Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe held.
In the same ruling, the tribunal remanded Reafor's case to the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Naga City, Branch 24, for further proceedings.
Reafor was charged with violation of Section 5 of Republic Act (RA) 9165 (selling of illegal drugs).
He filed a motion to plea bargain, indicating he was willing to plead guilty to a lesser offense of possession of illegal drug paraphernalia under Section 12 of the same law.
However, the RTC gave due course to Reafor's proposal. The trial court convicted Reafor for violating Section 12 of RA 9165.
The case reached the CA but the petition filed by the OSG was dismissed on procedural grounds.
When it moved for reconsideration, it was also denied, prompting the OSG to elevate the case to the High Court.
In its ruling, the SC held the RTC gravely abused its discretion in granting Reafor's motion to plea bargain "notwithstanding the prosecution's opposition to the same which is grounded on [DoJ] Circular No. 27."
According to the high court, the judgment is void ab initio as the basic requisites of plea bargaining were not followed, including the consent of the offended party, consent of the prosecutor, plea of guilty to a lesser offense and approval of the court.
"Effectively, respondent's plea of guilty to a lesser offense (to which he was convicted of) was made without the consent of the prosecution," the SC said.
"Since respondent's plea of guilty and subsequent conviction for a lesser offense clearly lack one of the requisites of a valid plea bargain, the plea bargaining is void," it opined.
"Thus, since the judgment of conviction rendered against respondent is void, it is only proper to resume with the trial [of the case] — which prior to respondent's filing of his motion to plea bargain, was at the stage of the prosecution's presentation of evidence — without violating respondent's right against double jeopardy," it said.
Concurring with the ruling were Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo, Amy Lazaro-Javier, Mario Lopez and Ricardo Rosario.
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