Jan 27, 2021 @ 13:40

SC holds ex-Baguio judge liable over acquittals for sale, plea bargaining in drug cases

The Supreme Court (SC) has disqualified retired Baguio City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 61 Judge Antonio Reyes from public office and forfeited his benefits for demanding bribes in exchange for acquittals and allowing plea bargaining in drug cases when it was previously prohibited under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

Reyes was also found to have dismissed criminal cases motu proprio even before the prosecution has finished presenting evidence, and granted second motions for reconsideration (MR) contrary to the Rules of Court.

In a recent 12-page en banc resolution, the SC pronounced Reyes guilty of the administrative offenses of gross ignorance of the law, gross misconduct, and violations of Canons 1, 2 and 3 of the New Code of Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary.

Had he not reached retirement age while disciplinary proceedings were pending, he would have been dismissed from service.

The sanctions arose from a fact-finding investigation held by retired Associate Justice Roberto Abad, which the SC directed in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s public naming of four sitting judges among those allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade on August 7, 2016.

Although the investigation against the three others was terminated for lack of evidence, administrative proceedings were pursued against Reyes and a judicial audit was conducted on the cases in his sala.

The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) unearthed the bribery allegations by securing the affidavits of at least five witnesses, as well as an anonymous letter and interviews with a Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), court employees, and practicing lawyers in Baguio City who requested anonymity.

Paul Black claimed he gave P50,000 to Reyes’s alleged bagman Norma Domingo in October 2007 in exchange for the acquittal of his wife. Melchora Nagen attested that in December 2007, her family gave P50,000 to secure her acquittal.

Nagen also claimed that Norma requested that she accompany her in delivering to the judge the P300,000 paid by Richard Lagunilla for the acquittal of his wife.

Former staff Charito Zsa Zsa Oliva testified that in 2008, Reyes made her get a paper bag from Norma. Before handing the paper bag to the judge, Oliva was able to sneak a peak and saw an iPhone inside.

Edmar Buscagan claimed that a Jun Alejandro offered to fix his case, but asked for P150,000, then P100,000, and finally P70,000. Buscagan claimed that he ended up being convicted by Reyes because he refused to pay the fee. Another alleged fixer Pastora Putungan then demanded P300,000 for the reversal of his conviction, but Buscagan still failed to pay.

Lawyer Lourdes Maita Cascolan-Andres attested that Edward Fangonil asked for P300,000 so Reyes would reverse the conviction of her clients, but they were not able to raise the money.

In response, Reyes denied the affidavits and said they were highly dubious and questionable. He added that the information of the anonymous BJMP personnel that he used Norma as a bagman was just hearsay.

The SC, however, still relaxed the hearsay rule and said the findings of the judicial audit and the affidavits supplemented and corroborated the allegation.

“Clearly, respondent judge should be held administratively liable for gross misconduct since there is evident presence of corruption,” read the per curiam resolution.

The OCA’s judicial audit uncovered Reyes’s “propensity” for allowing plea bargaining in numerous drug cases, so the accused would only have to be rehabilitated in government facilities.

Plea bargaining was prohibited under Section 23 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act. Only on August 15, 2017 did the SC, in the case of Estipona versus Lobrigo, declare the provision unconstitutional for encroaching upon its power to promulgate rules of procedure.

Reyes invoked the Estipona decision even though it came after he had already entertained plea bargaining in drug cases. He also argued that the amount of drugs involved were miniscule and for personal consumption only, and it was the prosecution that found good grounds to rehabilitate the accused.

The SC, however, said the prohibition against plea bargaining was “so straightforward such that violation of the same is inexcusable.” It said the Estipona decision would not shield Reyes from liability because laws are presumed constitutional until declared otherwise.

“Abidance with the law is mandatory and a judge is expected to abide by the same regardless of their personal conviction or opinion,” read the resolution.

The OCA also found at least five cases which were dismissed by Reyes on his own impulse without waiting for the prosecution to rest its case. The judge argued that the prosecution was given the opportunity to be heard and that the evidence all fell short of the required quantum for conviction.

The SC, however, said the prosecution can only be considered to have rested its case when it has filed its formal offer of evidence. It said Reyes could not have validly considered any evidence without waiting for the formal offer as required by Section 34, Rule 132 of the Rules of Court.

Lastly, the OCA in at least one case questioned Reyes’s acquittal of the accused on his second MR. He invoked the “greater interest of justice” and said that only after taking a second hard look into the case did he discover that the arrest was a mere afterthought when the policemen failed to arrest their main target.

The SC said Section 2, Rule 52 mandates that no second MR of a judgment or final resolution shall be entertained. It found Reyes’s move “suspect” because if there was really cause to acquit the accused, he could have reversed his conviction on the first MR.

“Presumption therefore is created that accused was not able to timely provide the payment for his acquittal,” the SC said.

“Respondent judge was remiss in the discharge of his judicial functions and with the allegation of corruption, damaged the integrity of the Judiciary which he represents. Judges are strictly mandated to abide by the law, the Code of Judicial Conduct and existing administrative policies in order to maintain the faith of our people in the administration of justice,” it concluded. #

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