SC Affirms Dismissal of Graft Charges against Former UN Diplomat

September 29, 2021

“Once a demurrer to evidence has been granted in a criminal case, the grant amounts to an acquittal. Any further prosecution for the same offense would violate the accused’s constitutional right against double jeopardy.”

Thus held the Supreme Court as it dismissed the petition of the State, represented by the Office of the Ombudsman through the Office of the Special Prosecutor, assailing the rulings of  the  Sandiganbayan which granted the Demurrer to Evidence filed by former diplomat Lauro  L Baja, Jr. and dismissed the prosecution’s case against him for violation of Section 3(e) of RA 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Baja purportedly incurred questionable representation expenses in 2003, 2004, and 2005 totaling to $28,934.96 when he was the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) and Chief of Mission I, Department of Foreign Affairs for the Philippine Mission to the United Nations, New York City, United States of American. He was the Philippine Representative to the UN from 2003 to 2007.

Citing its 2002 ruling in People v. Sandiganbayan, the Court reiterated that once a demurrer to evidence has been granted in a criminal case, the grant amounts to an acquittal, and any further prosecution for the same offense would violate Article III, Section 21 of the Constitution.

The Court, however, pointed out that the “only time when assailing the grant of a demurrer to evidence will not violate the right against double jeopardy is when the trial court is shown to have gravely abused its discretion, such that the prosecution’s right to due process was violated, denying it the opportunity to present its case.

The Court ruled that the Sandiganbayan’s grant of Demurrer to Evidence was proper.

The Court explained that the Information specifically charged Baja with claiming and receiving reimbursement for non-existent or fictitious representation expenses, and not for merely submitting incomplete documents to support his claims. As the Sandiganbayan noted, the irregularities in the supporting documents were insufficient positive  proof of the alleged nonpayment. The prosecution bore the burden to prove the allegations in the Information. If its evidence was insufficient to establish the elements of the offense charged, respondent Baja’s guilt could not have been proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The Court further held that contrary to the State’s claims, the Sandiganbayan did not commit “gross misapprehension of facts” tantamount to abuse of discretion which would warrant the reversal of its grant of Demurrer to Evidence.

“A review of the Sandiganbayan’s March 20, 2017 and June 27, 2017 Resolutions shows that the Sandiganbayan did not commit a gross misapprehension of the facts in the case. Its findings were based on the evidence presented by the prosecution. As the Sandiganbayan pointed out, while the prosecution proved that respondent Baja’s expenses were improperly documented, it failed to present enough evidence that would lead to a conclusion that these expenses were completely fictitious or non-existent,” the Court said.

“Petitioner was unable to show that the Sandiganbayan, in granting the Demurrer, blatantly abused its authority as to deprive itself of ‘its very power to dispense justice.’ The Sandiganbayan did not commit grave abuse of discretion. To reverse its grant of the Demurrer to Evidence and dismissal of the case would be to violate respondent Baja’s right against double jeopardy,” stated the Court.

(G.R. No. 233437, People v. Sandiganbayan and Baja, Jr., April 26, 2021)

READ FULL TEXT: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/21334/