Case Digest of G.R. No. 226679 (August 15, 2017)


FACTS: Challenged in this petition for certiorari and prohibition is the constitutionality of Section 23 of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165, or the "Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002," which provides:
SEC 23. Plea-Bargaining Provision. - Any person charged under any provision of this Act regardless of the imposable penalty shall not be allowed to avail of the provision on plea-bargaining.
Petitioner Salvador A. Estipona, Jr. (Estipona) is the accused in Criminal Case No. 13586 for violation of Section 11, Article II of R.A. No. 9165 (Possession of Dangerous Drugs).

On June 15, 2016, Estipona filed a Motion to Allow the Accused to Enter into a Plea Bargaining Agreement, praying to withdraw his not guilty plea and, instead, to enter a plea of guilty for violation of Section 12, Article II of R.A. No. 9165 (Possession of Equipment, Instrument, Apparatus and Other Paraphernalia for Dangerous Drugs) with a penalty of rehabilitation in view of his being a first-time offender and the minimal quantity of the dangerous drug seized in his possession. He argued that Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165 violates: (1) the intent of the law expressed in paragraph 3, Section 2 thereof; (2) the rule-making authority of the Supreme Court under Section 5(5), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution; and (3) the principle of separation of powers among the three equal branches of the government.

In its Comment or Opposition dated June 27, 2016, the prosecution moved for the denial of the motion for being contrary to Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165, which is said to be justified by the Congress' prerogative to choose which offense it would allow plea bargaining. Later, in a Comment or Opposition dated June 29, 2016, it manifested that it "is open to the Motion of the accused to enter into plea bargaining to give life to the intent of the law as provided in paragraph 3, Section 2 of [R.A. No.] 9165, however, with the express mandate of Section 23 of [R.A. No.] 9165 prohibiting plea bargaining, [it] is left without any choice but to reject the proposal of the accused."

On July 12, 2016, respondent Judge Frank E. Lobrigo of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 3, Legazpi City, Albay, issued an Order denying Estipona's motion.

ISSUE: Is Section 23 of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165 unconstitutional?

HELD: Yes, Section 23 of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165 is UNCONSTITUTIONAL for being contrary to the rule-making authority of the Supreme Court under Section 5(5), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution.

Rule-making power of the Supreme Court under the 1987 Constitution. Section 5(5), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution explicitly provides that the power to promulgate rules of pleading, practice and procedure is now the exclusive domain of the Supreme Court and no longer shared with the Executive and Legislative departments.

The trias politica principle prevents Congress from promulgating rules regarding pleading, practice and procedure. The separation of powers among the three co-equal branches of our government has erected an impregnable wall that keeps the power to promulgate rules of pleading, practice and procedure within the sole province of this Court. The other branches trespass upon this prerogative if they enact laws or issue orders that effectively repeal, alter or modify any of the procedural rules promulgated by the Court.

Considering that the aforesaid laws effectively modified the Rules, this Court asserted its discretion to amend, repeal or even establish new rules of procedure, to the exclusion of the legislative and executive branches of government. To reiterate, the Court's authority to promulgate rules on pleading, practice, and procedure is exclusive and one of the safeguards of Our institutional independence.

Plea bargaining is a rule of procedure. The Supreme Court's sole prerogative to issue, amend, or repeal procedural rules is limited to the preservation of substantive rights, i.e., the former should not diminish, increase or modify the latter. "Substantive law is that part of the law which creates, defines and regulates rights, or which regulates the right and duties which give rise to a cause of action; that part of the law which courts are established to administer; as opposed to adjective or remedial law, which prescribes the method of enforcing rights or obtain redress for their invasions."
It is towards the aim of a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases in all courts that the rules on plea bargaining was introduced. As a way of disposing criminal charges by agreement of the parties, plea bargaining is considered to be an "important," "essential," "highly desirable," and "legitimate" component of the administration of justice.

Plea bargaining has been defined as "a process whereby the accused and the prosecution work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval." There is give-and-take negotiation common in plea bargaining. The essence of the agreement is that both the prosecution and the defense make concessions to avoid potential losses. Properly administered, plea bargaining is to be encouraged because the chief virtues of the system - speed, economy, and finality - can benefit the accused, the offended party, the prosecution, and the court.

Yet a defendant has no constitutional right to plea bargain. No basic rights are infringed by trying him rather than accepting a plea of guilty; the prosecutor need not do so if he prefers to go to trial. Under the present Rules, the acceptance of an offer to plead guilty is not a demandable right but depends on the consent of the offended party and the prosecutor, which is a condition precedent to a valid plea of guilty to a lesser offense that is necessarily included in the offense charged. The reason for this is that the prosecutor has full control of the prosecution of criminal actions; his duty is to always prosecute the proper offense, not any lesser or graver one, based on what the evidence on hand can sustain.

The plea is further addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court, which may allow the accused to plead guilty to a lesser offense which is necessarily included in the offense charged. The word may denotes an exercise of discretion upon the trial court on whether to allow the accused to make such plea. Trial courts are exhorted to keep in mind that a plea of guilty for a lighter offense than that actually charged is not supposed to be allowed as a matter of bargaining or compromise for the convenience of the accused.

Plea bargaining is allowed during the arraignment, the pre-trial, or even up to the point when the prosecution already rested its case. As regards plea bargaining during the pre-trial stage, the trial court's exercise of discretion should not amount to a grave abuse thereof. "Grave abuse of discretion" is a capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment so patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, as where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner because of passion or hostility; it arises when a court or tribunal violates the Constitution, the law or existing jurisprudence.

If the accused moved to plead guilty to a lesser offense subsequent to a bail hearing or after the prosecution rested its case, the rules allow such a plea only when the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to establish the guilt of the crime charged. The only basis on which the prosecutor and the court could rightfully act in allowing change in the former plea of not guilty could be nothing more and nothing less than the evidence on record. As soon as the prosecutor has submitted a comment whether for or against 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. The ruling on the motion must disclose the strength or weakness of the prosecution's evidence. Absent any finding on the weight of the evidence on hand, the judge's acceptance of the defendant's change of plea is improper and irregular.