Editorial: Guilty until proven innocent

·3 min read

THIS week, March 2, 2021, lawmakers passed on final reading House Bill 7814, a measure meant to give our Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 (Republic Act 9165) more teeth. A total of 188 representatives, majority administration allies, voted in favor of the amendment, 11 voted no and nine abstained.

Critics, including the Commission on Human Rights, say that, in essence, the amendments remove presumption of innocence. Additions to the list of drug suspects and people with “knowledge or has willfully consented to the illegal importation of dangerous drugs” include anyone found in possession of drug-related documents; a person who “harbors, screens, facilitates” the escape of drug traders; anyone who is in the premises of a drug transaction or manufacturing; a person who “causes, raises, provides or supplies” drug money. Another worth noting is this: Anyone is “presumed a protector or coddler if he/she knows the seller, trader, distributor.”

It may help to understand the context that might have inspired the motivations behind the amendment. Records at the National Prosecution Service of the Department of Justice (DOJ) show that Philippine courts have been dismissing drug cases by the thousands, a matter of concern, said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra. While there has been a sharp surge of drug cases filed in court since 2014 to the present, prosecution has been in a dismal state. In 2016, of the 68,895 drug cases, 2,617 were dismissed. In 2017, 5,270 cases were cleared out of the 70,706 filed. Of these cases, prosecution success rate was only 50.2 percent in 2016, with a slight improvement the following year at 52.5 percent. Such a frustrating figure for the Philippine National Police, its sector of faithful officers who had been doggedly pursuing the war against drugs to the letter.

Much of the prosecution failure have been attributed to technical reasons, said Guevarra, such as failure to observe procedural requirements, particularly on the chain of custody of the drugs seized—one such problem that involves the executive, which means the judiciary has no control of. One such problem, too, that needs proper coordination among concerned agencies from the three branches of government.

So will HB 7814 solve the problem? In essence, the amendments merely empower the law enforcement part in the campaign, and not the aspect where the drug war has been mostly failing, which is prosecution. This weakness has been seized with much advantage by defense counsels in drug cases.

Expanding coverage of the definition of drug suspects will open the floodgates of more cases jammed into our prison facilities, already stuffed to the rafters by a sweeping majority of drug cases. As of last count, there are around 2,600 regional trial courts handling 289,295 drug cases, on top of other cases. The law sets the ideal 60 days to close a drug case, but yes, in the ideal world. Ground realities say that drug cases drag on for years, even a decade, while suspects languish in prison. For minor cases, the court have instituted plea bargaining agreements with conditions that suspects submit themselves to monitored rehabilitation programs. The current rollout of community-based therapies is an excellent response as a mechanism to decongest our prison facilities because persons deprived of liberties can avail themselves of this deal within their communities.

We hope HB 7814 can be studied further, not only by its implications to basic constitutionally guaranteed rights, but to the drug campaign as a whole.