Remedial Law

People of the Philippines vs Erick Montierro

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G.R. No. 254564; G.R. No. 254974; A.M. No. 21-07-16-SC; A.M. No. 18-03-16-SC – Remedial Law – Criminal Procedure – Sec. 4, Rule 114; Plea to a Lesser Offense – Plea Bargaining in Drugs Cases – Requisites of a valid plea bargaining

This case was consolidated with Cypher Baldadera vs People of the Philippines (G.R. No. 254974), Re: Letter of the Philippine Judges Association Expressing Its Concern over the Ramifications of the Decisions in G.R. No. 247575 and G.R. No. 250295 (A.M. No. 21-07-16-SC), and Re: Letter of Associate Justice Diosdado M. Peralta on the Suggested Plea Bargaining Framework Submitted by the Philippine Judges Association (A.M. No. 18-03-16-SC).

In early 2017, Montierro and Baldadera were separately charged with violations of Sec. 5, RA No. 9165 (selling illegal drugs) for allegedly selling shabu or methamphetamine hydrochloride. The penalty for selling illegal drugs is lifetime imprisonment.

In August 2017, the SC promulgated Estipona vs. Lobrigo which declared that plea bargaining is allowed in drugs cases.

In November 2017, the Department of Justice issued Department Circular No. 061-17 which disallowed its prosecutors from agreeing with plea bargaining proposals in cases involving violations of Section 5 of RA No. 9165 or in cases of illegal sale of dangerous drugs regardless of the quantity seized in those cases.

In April 2018, the SC issued A.M. No. 18-03-16-SC or the Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases which allowed plea bargaining in Section 5 cases if the quantity of the drugs seized is 0.01 gram to 0.99 gram. Accused in these cases are allowed to plead guilty to the lesser offense of violation of Section 12 or illegal possession of equipment, instrument, apparatus and other paraphernalia for dangerous drugs punishable by six (6) months and one (1) day to four (4) years and a fine ranging from P10,000.00 to P50,000.00.

In June 2018, the DOJ issued Department Circular No. 027-18 which amended Department Circular No. 061-17. This allows their prosecutors to agree to plea bargaining proposals involving violations of Section 5 but the acceptable proposal should be a plea of guilt to the lesser offense of Section 11, paragraph 3 or illegal possession of dangerous drugs with an indeterminate penalty of twelve (12) years and one (1) clay to twenty (20) years and a fine from P300.000.00 to P400,000.00.

Baldadera and Montierro submitted their respective plea bargaining proposals with both seeking to plead guilty for violations of Section 12. The prosecution objected to the proposals but despite the objection, the trial court approved the proposals and both were convicted to the lesser offense of violations of Section 12.

The Office of the Solicitor-General questioned the approval of the plea bargaining proposals on the ground that one of the requisites for a valid plea of guilt is the consent of the prosecution as ruled in People vs Reafor (G.R. No. 247575, 16 November 2020).

ISSUES: Whether or not there may be a valid plea bargaining agreement even if the prosecution objects to the plea bargaining proposal.

HELD: Yes. These consolidated cases settle the conflict between the DOJ issuances and the Court’s plea bargaining framework as well as the seeming confusion brought about by the SC’s ruling in Reafor.

Plea bargaining requires the consent of the parties but the approval thereof is subject to the sound discretion of the court. Whether the prosecution is for or against the accused’s proposal to plead guilty to a lesser offense, the trial court remains duty-bound to assiduously evaluate the qualifications of the accused and the circumstances of the case. In other words, the approval of the accused’s plea of guilty to a lesser offense is ultimately subject to the sound discretion of the court.

For a valid plea bargaining in drugs cases, the following guidelines must be observed by the trial court:

1. Offers for plea bargaining must be initiated in writing by way of a formal written motion filed by the accused in court.

2. The lesser offense which the accused proposes to plead guilty to must necessarily be included in the offense charged.

3. Upon receipt of the proposal for plea bargaining that is compliant with the provisions of the Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases, the judge shall order that a drug dependency assessment be administered. If the accused admits drug use, or denies it but is found positive after a drug dependency test, then he/she shall undergo treatment and rehabilitation for a period of not less than six (6) months. Said period shall be credited to his/her penalty and the period of his/her after-care and follow-up program if the penalty is still unserved. If the accused is found negative for drug use/dependency, then he/she will be released on time served, otherwise, he/she will serve his/her sentence in jail minus the counselling period at rehabilitation center.

4. As a rule, plea bargaining requires the mutual agreement of the parties and remains subject to the approval of the court. Regardless of the mutual agreement of the parties, the acceptance of the offer to plead guilty to a lesser offense is not demandable by the accused as a matter of right but is a matter addressed entirely to the sound discretion of the court.

a. Though the prosecution and the defense may agree to enter into a plea bargain, it does not follow that the courts will automatically approve the proposal. Judges must still exercise sound discretion in granting or denying plea bargaining, taking into account the relevant circumstances, including the character of the accused.

5. The court shall not allow plea bargaining if the objection to the plea bargaining is valid and supported by evidence to the effect that:

a. the offender is a recidivist, habitual offender, known in the community as a drug addict and a troublemaker, has undergone rehabilitation but had a relapse, or has been charged many times; or

b. when the evidence of guilt is strong.

6. Plea bargaining in drugs cases shall not be allowed when the proposed plea bargain does not conform to the Court-issued Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases.

7. Judges may overrule the objection of the prosecution if it is based solely on the ground that the accused’s plea bargaining proposal is inconsistent with the acceptable plea bargain under any internal rules or guidelines of the DOJ, though in accordance with the plea bargaining framework issued by the Court, if any.

8. If the prosecution objects to the accused’s plea bargaining proposal due to the circumstances enumerated in item no. 5, the trial court is mandated to hear the prosecution’s objection and rule on the merits thereof. If the trial court finds the objection meritorious, it shall order the continuation of the criminal proceedings.

9. If an accused applies for probation in offenses punishable under RA No. 9165, other than for illegal drug trafficking or pushing under Section 5 in relation to Section 24 thereof, then the law on probation shall apply.

In Reafor, there was no showing that the trial judge judiciously resolved the objection of the prosecution.

The cases of Montierro and Baldadera are remanded to the lower court for further proceedings to resolve the basis of the objection of the prosecution.

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Note: The ruling that there must be a drug dependency test result before an accused’s plea bargaining proposal may be resolved was abandoned by the Supreme Court in Bason vs. People (G.R. No. 262664, 3 October 2023).

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