SC Reiterates that Courts May Allow Plea Bargaining Despite the Prosecution’s Objections
October 27, 2023
The dividing line between prosecutorial prerogatives and judicial discretion is why courts may overrule objections on plea bargaining on certain groups.
Thus reiterated the Supreme Court’s Third Division in a Resolution penned by Associate Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh granting the petition for review on certiorari filed by Erwin Alvero. The petition assailed the Decision of the Court of Appeals (CA) which had found that the Regional Trial Court of Roxas City, Branch 16 (RTC) acted with grave abuse of discretion when it accepted Alvero’s proposal for plea bargaining despite the prosecution’s objection.
In 2016, Alvero was charged with the violation of Section 5, Article II of Republic Act No. (RA) 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, for the illegal sale of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu with a total weight of 0.1459 grams.
Alvero pleaded “not guilty” during arraignment but later asked that he be allowed to plead guilty for violation not of the original charge, but for violation instead of Section 12, Article II of RA 9165. Alvero invoked Supreme Court A.M. No. 18-03-16-SC, or the Adoption of the Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases (Plea Bargaining Framework).
In the Plea Bargaining Framework, the Court enumerated the acceptable pleas for specific offenses in drugs cases. Among such offenses is Section 5, Article II where the quantity of the shabu recovered is from 0.01 gram to 0.99 grams. When such is the offense charged, the acceptable plea bargain is violation of Section 12, Article II or possession of equipment, instrument or apparatus and other paraphernalia for dangerous drugs.
The prosecution objected to Alvero’s plea bargain proposal, arguing that under Department of Justice (DOJ) Circular No. 027 (DOJ Circular 027), the acceptable plea for a violation of Section 5, Article II of RA 9165 is Section 11, paragraph 3 of the same law, not Section 12.
The RTC granted Alvero’s proposal, resulting in his re-arraignment with the downgraded crime and his plea of guilty to the same.
The RTC’s Decision convicting Alvero for the downgraded crime was challenged by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), representing the People of the Philippines, which filed with the CA a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court.
The CA granted the OSG’s petition, finding that the RTC gravely abused its discretion when it accepted Alvero’s plea bargain proposal. This prompted Alvero to go to the High Court.
The Supreme Court, in granting Alvero’s petition, found that no grave abuse of discretion was committed by the RTC.
Applying its ruling in the 2022 case of People v. Montierro, the Court held that a trial court has the authority to allow plea bargaining even when the prosecution objects to the plea bargain and thus withholds consent.
“[T]he exclusive prerogative of the Executive begins and ends with matters involving purely prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutorial discretion pertains to who to prosecute, what case to prosecute, and how the case would be pursued based on the evidence available to the prosecution. The prosecution has the freedom and authority to determine whether to charge a person, what Information to file against them and how to prosecute the case filed before the courts,” said the Court.
However, the Court added that “there is an obvious limit to prosecutorial prerogatives as the prosecutor obviously has no control over how the court would decide the case. While a prosecutor may look at the evidence and determine the charge and that a person is probably guilty of the same, a judge may look at the same set of evidence and arrive at a different conclusion.”
This distinction between “prosecutorial prerogatives and judicial discretion is why courts may overrule objections on plea bargaining on certain grounds,” held the Court.
The Court further stressed that just like “any motion submitted for the court’s resolution, if the prosecution’s basis for objection has no merit or runs afoul of the Constitutional prerogative exclusive to the court, then it is not unconstitutional for a court to assert by ruling that such objection is invalid.”
In particular, 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.”
The Court clarified, however, that the discretion of the courts is not limitless. “[T]he authority of the court over plea bargaining in drugs cases is circumscribed foremost by the Court-issued framework on the acceptable plea bargains and by the evidence and circumstances of each case. Thus, a court has no jurisdiction to overrule an objection of the prosecution if the same is grounded on evidence showing that the accused is not qualified therefor, or when the plea does not conform to the Court-issued rule or framework,” held the Court.
Applying the foregoing to the case of Alvero, the Court found that his plea bargain proposal conforms with the Plea Bargaining Framework which categorically states that where the crime charged is violation of Section 5, Article II and the quantity of the shabu recovered is from 0.01 gram to 0.99 grams, the acceptable plea bargain is violation of Section 12, Article II or possession of equipment, instrument or apparatus and other paraphernalia for dangerous drugs.
The Court also ruled that when the RTC let the Plea Bargaining Framework prevail over DOJ Circular 027, the RTC was simply performing its duty to resolve issues brought before it based on the law and the rules.
Consistent with the guidelines laid down in Montierro, the Court noted that a court, in granting plea bargain proposals, must determine first if (a) the accused 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) the evidence of guilt is strong.
In Alvero’s case, as the RTC Decision did not show that if the RTC made findings as to these matters, the Court ordered that the case be remanded to the RTC to determine if Alvero may indeed be allowed to plea bargain in this case, and specifically if (a) he 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) the evidence of guilt is strong.
The RTC is further mandated to hear the prosecution’s objection and rule on the merits. If the RTC finds the prosecution’s objection meritorious, it shall order the continuation of the criminal proceedings. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
Full text of G.R. No. 260214 (Alvero v. People of the Philippines.) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/260214-erwin-alvero-y-tresvalles-vs-people-of-the-philippines/