Hundreds of drug cases, 2 islands and 1 brave judge closing gap
CEBU CITY — For the past five years, Judge Mory Nueva has been crossing between the islands of Samar and Cebu to help reduce docket congestion and speed up the dispensation of justice in the trial courts.
The constant travel is not easy. After all, Samar is 217 kilometers northeast of Cebu City.
“It is tiresome,” the 50-year-old judge conceded.
Nueva used to board a ferry in Samar once or twice a month for Cebu before he eventually decided to travel by plane to cut travel time and avoid risks to his personal safety.
And his is a job that entails a lot of risks.
Just a month ago, Nueva received an urgent appeal to exonerate a ranking local official whose case was up for decision. Though he didn’t give it much thought, like any impartial judge would, he said the plea was like the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, one he considered a serious threat to his life.
For three weeks every month, Nueva handles mostly drug-related cases in the Cebu City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 13, where he serves as acting judge, and in Mandaue City RTC Branch 55, where he is an assisting judge.
He spends the rest of the days at RTC Branch 38 in Gamay town, Northern Samar, where he grew up.
Part of the job
“I would have declined my assignments in Cebu, but that’s part of our job. When we accepted the position, there’s always the possibility of being transferred from one place to another. And so I accepted the challenge,” he said.
Nueva said he had already asked the Supreme Court to assign him to Cebu City, where his wife was based.
“It is also nice in Samar because that’s where I grew up. But most of the people there are my friends or relatives, so I always inhibit myself from cases there to avoid perceptions of partiality,” he said.
Nueva still holds out hope that he would eventually be appointed presiding judge of the Cebu City RTC Branch 13, which has about 1,500 pending cases.
In comparison, the Mandaue City RTC Branch 55 has around 500 cases in its docket, while the Samar RTC Branch 38 has around 80.
Guidance from above
It is imperative, he said, that the cases be dealt with as soon as practicable.
“Judicial independence is very important. We should not take sides. When I decide on cases, I always consider the evidence presented by the parties and my own appreciation of the evidence,” he said. “Just follow the law, ask guidance from above, and you will never be wrong.”
Amid his busy schedule, Nueva is grateful that his wife, with whom he has a 1-year-old daughter, has been very supportive of his advocacies.
“I never thought I would become a judge,” Nueva said.
The son of a farmer and a public school teacher, Nueva once dreamt of becoming a physician but his parents could barely send all their three children to school. “Life was really hard for us at that time. In fact, my other sibling was not able to finish her studies,” he said.
After his parents had saved enough money to send him to college, he studied law at Divine Word University in Tacloban City, Leyte, and put in extra effort to finish the course not a day longer.
Through persistence and hard work, Nueva passed the bar examinations in 1996.
Pileup of drug cases
Nowadays, the unassuming judge handles predominantly drug-related cases whose outcomes, he said, he is much concerned about.
He said law enforcement authorities should review their operational procedures and make sure they follow the law if they wanted to contribute to the government’s war on drugs.
In 2014, 63 percent of drug cases filed in the special antidrug courts of the Cebu City RTC ended up being dismissed or with the accused being acquitted, Nueva lamented.
Of the 1,388 drug cases decided by the courts from January 2012 until the first quarter of 2014, 627 ended up in the acquittal of the accused, while 246 of the cases were dismissed.
Court data also showed that a total of 873 cases filed against people suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade came to nothing.
Police failure to comply
Only 515 of the 1,388 cases, or 37 percent, ended with the accused pleading guilty during arraignment or with the conviction of the accused.
Nueva blamed the low batting average of law enforcers in drug-related cases on their failure to comply with Section 21 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 (Republic Act No. 9165), which governs the “custody, inventory, and disposition of seized dangerous drugs and paraphernalia.”
Illegal arrests, searches and seizures, as well as the failure of law enforcers to observe the rules in buy-bust operations also contributed to the dismal prosecution of drug cases, he said.
“Many cases all over the country were dismissed due to technicalities. The cases were poorly built and authorities didn’t even follow the procedures,” he added.
The huge number of case dismissals and acquittal of drug suspects should prompt law enforcers to go back to the drawing board, Nueva said.
Under Section 21, Paragraph 1 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, “the apprehending team having custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his or her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.”
Major stumbling block
Law enforcers, Nueva said, find this provision of the law a major stumbling block, preventing the successful prosecution of drug cases.
They cited the unavailability of public officials, representatives of the DOJ and the media to accompany law enforcers during the inventory of seized drugs.
In July 2014, former President Benigno Aquino III signed Republic Act No. 10640, which further strengthens the antidrug campaign of the government.
The new law mandates that the inventory of the seized items be witnessed “by an elected public official with jurisdiction over the crime scene accompanied by any representative from the media or the National Prosecution Service.”
When the day’s work is over, Nueva said, he finds comfort in thinking that he has done his job well and that everything he did was based on the law.
“If you do your job well, your conscience is clear. That makes me fulfilled,” he said.
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