Remedial Law

People of the Philippines vs Judge Martin Villarama

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G.R. No. 99287 – 285 Phil. 723 – 210 SCRA 246 – Remedial Law – Criminal Procedure – Plea to a Lesser Offense – Requisites; Consent of the Prosecution; Consent of the Offended Party

In August 1990, Jaime Manuel was accused of illegal possession of drugs. Trial proceeded and after the prosecution has rested its case, Manuel submitted a plea bargaining proposal where he offered to plead guilty to the lesser offense of failure to retain records of regulated drugs. The prosecution objected to the proposal on the grounds that a) the prosecution already rested its case and b) the possibility of conviction of Manuel of the crime of illegal possession is high.

Judge Martin Villarama, despite the objection of the prosecution, granted the plea bargaining proposal and convicted Manuel to the lesser offense.

ISSUE: Whether or not there is a valid plea bargaining proposal.

HELD: No. Plea bargaining in criminal cases, is a process whereby the accused and the prosecution work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the Accused’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than that for the graver charge. Ordinarily, plea-bargaining is made during the pre-trial stage of the criminal proceedings. However, the law still permits the accused sufficient opportunity to change his plea thereafter.

Here, the objection raised by the prosecution was not properly addressed by the court. The court should have judiciously evaluated the objection before granting (or denying) the plea bargaining proposal.

As soon as the fiscal has submitted his comment whether for or against the said motion, it behooves the trial court to assiduously study the prosecution’s evidence as well as all the circumstances upon which the accused made his change of plea to the end that the interests of justice and of the public will be served. A reading of the disputed rulings in this case failed to disclose the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s evidence. Apparently, the judgment under review dwelt solely on only one of the three objections (i.e. waste of valuable time already spent by the court and prosecution) interposed by the Fiscal which was the least persuasive. It must be recalled that the other two grounds of objection were that the prosecution had already rested its case and that the possibility of conviction of the private respondent of the crime originally charged was high because of the strong evidence of the prosecution. Absent any finding on the weight of the evidence in hand, the respondent judge’s acceptance of the private respondent’s change of plea is improper and irregular.

The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

In victimless crimes such as violations of the Dangerous Drugs Act, if there is a plea bargaining proposal, from whom shall consent of the offended party be secured?

In victimless crimes, the offended party is the State. Consent must be obtained from the prosecutor.

In this case, Manuel was already convicted to a lesser offense. Will there be a violation of his right against double jeopardy since he will be tried again for the original charge?

No. The right against double jeopardy applies only if there was a valid plea or in this case if both the fiscal and the offended party consent to the accused’s change of plea. Since this is not the situation here, Manuel cannot claim this privilege.

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