SC: Plea bargains still need court OK
Plea bargaining in illegal drug cases is a matter addressed entirely by the sound discretion of the court, the Supreme Court said, as it issued clarificatory guidelines to resolve questions on a Department of Justice (DOJ) circular on the same issue.
“As a rule, plea bargaining requires the mutual agreement of the parties and remains subject to the approval of the court. Regardless of the mutual agreement of the parties, the acceptance of the offer to plead guilty to a lesser offense is not demandable by the accused as a matter of right but is a matter addressed entirely to the sound discretion of the court,” a statement from the Supreme Court Public Information Office (PIO) said.
“Though the prosecution and the defense may agree to enter into a plea bargain, it does not follow that the courts will automatically approve the proposal. Judges must still exercise sound discretion in granting or denying plea bargaining, taking into account the relevant circumstances, including the character of the accused,” it added.
Plea bargaining allows the accused and the prosecution in a criminal case to work on a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case, where the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The Supreme Court, in an en banc session, issued the guidelines to address the conflict between the DOJ Circular No. 27, which prohibits plea bargaining for illegal sale of dangerous drugs to the lesser offense of illegal possession of drug paraphernalia under Republic Act No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, and the high court’s resolution adopting the Plea Bargaining Framework in Drug Cases.
“Holding that plea bargaining in the prosecution of drug cases goes into the very matters of fundamental constitutional rights, the Court resolved to clarify the guidelines it earlier issued,” the Supreme Court PIO said.
“While the Supreme Court takes judicial notice of the DOJ’s efforts to amend DOJ Circular No. 27 to conform with the Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases, the Court nevertheless issues the following guidelines for the guidance of both the Bench and the Bar,” it added.
Parts of the guidelines include:
ʎ Offers for plea bargaining must be initiated in writing by way of a formal written motion filed by the accused in court;
ʎ The lesser offense which the accused proposes to plead guilty to must necessarily be included in the offense charged;
ʎ Upon receipt of the proposal for plea bargaining that is compliant with the provisions of the Court’s Plea Bargaining Framework in Drugs Cases, the judge shall order that a drug dependency assessment be administered. If the accused admits drug use, or denies it but is found positive after a drug dependency test, then he/she shall undergo treatment and rehabilitation for a period of not less than six months. Said period shall be credited to his/her penalty and the period of his/her after-care and follow-up program if the penalty is still unserved. If the accused is found negative for drug use/dependency, then he/she will be released on time served, otherwise, he/she will serve his/her sentence in jail minus the counseling period at the rehabilitation center.
ʎ The court shall not allow plea bargaining if the objection to the plea bargaining is valid and supported by evidence to the effect that: (a) the offender 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) when the evidence of guilt is strong.
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