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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Probably the cause

A few articles ago, I wrote about the problem of congested court dockets, the dire situation that our magistrates are in because of it, and the possible courses of action that must be taken.

Considering the limited number and, consequently, the insufficient capacity of our courts, one of the suggestions I made was to find ways to lessen the number of cases that reach our courts. (NOTA BENE: I want to be clear that I am, in NO WAY, suggesting that the extrajudicial killing of suspects is a solution.)

In civil cases, I said that finding alternative modes of dispute resolution, such as mechanisms for mediation and conciliation may offer some relief.

Last Friday, the Sandiganbayan acquitted my clients, employees of the Department of Agrarian Reform Regional Office, of all charges against them. While I was quite happy with the Decision of the Anti-Graft Court and very thankful for the clear discussion of how my clients were never at fault in the first place, I also kept thinking that this case should NEVER have reached the court in the first place.

In simple terms, my clients certainly did not deserve being compelled to go through the public humiliation of being charged with a crime and the difficulties of going through the trial. The Decision of the Sandiganbayan exonerated my clients of any wrongdoing and, in fact, essentially stated that they performed their jobs correctly and credibly. Even the witness from the Commission on Audit asserted the fact that there was nothing wrong with the transaction subject of the case.

My point is that our screening process in criminal cases, the “preliminary investigation”, which determines which cases will be filed in court, can stand some improvement and doing so should substantially reduce the cases in court and save the State the considerable cost and effort involved in prosecuting weak, or senseless, criminal charges.

In the words of the Supreme Court, among the purposes of the preliminary investigation process is to “protect the state from the burden of the unnecessary expense and effort in prosecuting alleged offenses and in holding trials arising from false, frivolous or groundless charges.”

So, what is the problem? I would say that, in two (2) words, the problem is “PROBABLE CAUSE.” Probable Cause is the required evidence for an investigating prosecutor to file a case in court. Stated, sans all the niceties, probable cause is basically such evidence that would convince a reasonable man that a crime has been committed and that the person charged is probably guilty thereof.

While this seems logical, the problem is that this determination is very subjective. In other words, the evaluation of whether or not the evidence is enough can, and does, differ from investigator to investigator. Apparently, there is no standard measure of a “reasonable man or woman”.

This is further complicated by gray areas on matters that are within the purview of an investigator to decide. For example, challenging the legality of an arrest and the admissibility of the evidence secured through the accompanying search will rarely be ruled upon by investigators and the case will probably end up being filed in court because the investigator will likely rule that “the matters raised are matters of defense that should be threshed out in a full blown trial”.

If it were me, I would prohibit this easy escape because this is just passing the buck to the courts that are already overloaded and, besides, the Constitution itself states that illegally obtained evidence is INADMISSIBLE FOR ANY PURPOSE AND IN ANY PROCEEDING. So, if the arrest was truly illegal, the evidence secured thereby should be inadmissible even during preliminary investigation.

Sometimes this will lead one to suspect that the investigating prosecutor does not really care too much because it will be the trial prosecutor who will eventually try the case in court. Again, passing the buck seems to be the order of the day.

The point is that the standards for filing a criminal case in court, whether it be “probable cause” or maybe something more stringent, should be clearly and objectively defined to make it less subjective such that what will reach the courts will only be the cases that will not be a waste of the time and effort of the prosecutors, the courts, and the other involved government employees. Most importantly, the screening process should really protect those who are unjustly accused from being unnecessarily dragged into court.

I truly hope that those in the corridors of power, those responsible for policy determination and the internal rules of the investigating bodies, will see fit to initiate the necessary changes.

Maintaining the status quo, the curent standard of “probable cause”, and the vague metes and bounds of it, is simply unacceptable. If left to stagnate, this concept of “probable caause” will PROBABLY CAUSE more problems for the courts, for the trial prosecutors and, most importantly, for those dragged to court deprived of the protection that the State owes them.

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