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With Due Respect

Disputes on disputable presumptions

To explain House Bill No. 7814, especially its “disputable presumptions” that allegedly violate the constitutional right to be presumed innocent, Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, its main sponsor, had to undertake a media overdrive.

Barbers argues that disputable or prima facie presumptions are not new; they have long been extant in our statutes and in our Rules of Court. Thus, under the Anti-Fencing Law (Sec. 5, PD 1612), possession of a stolen item or property is deemed prima facie evidence of the crime of fencing, and under the Revised Penal Code (Art. 354), “Every defamatory imputation is presumed to be malicious…” Also, Rule 131 (Sec. 3) contains a list of over 30 disputable presumptions.

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May I add that the Constitution itself is the source of a presumption that is really a basic right, “… the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved…” Note, too, that statutory and judicial presumptions yield to the constitutional provisions (especially the Bill of Rights) that protect citizens from the awesome powers of the state.

People accused of crimes are railed against the mighty machinery of the state and its powerful public officers (policemen, secret agents, investigators, prosecutors, and even soldiers). This uneven encounter is typified by the very title of criminal cases: “People of the Philippines v. So-and-so;” the 110 million Filipinos against one lonely accused. The lowly accused can lean only on the sturdy wall of liberty erected by the Constitution.

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Accordingly, conviction in a criminal case requires “proof beyond reasonable doubt.” Such proof must be shown by hard facts filtered by the strict rules of evidence and due process before an impartial judge, and not by mere disputable presumptions.

Thus, under the Anti-Fencing Law, the disputable presumption will not be enough to convict an accused unless the elements of robbery or theft are first proven beyond reasonable doubt. And the “malicious” presumption can be used only if the elements of libel are first demonstrated. On the other hand, the disputable presumptions in Rule 131 (unlike HB 7814) protect, not damn, the accused.

In short, disputable presumptions are not substitutes for factual findings to secure a conviction in a court of law. Rather, they are logical consequences of such findings.

I do not have the space to take up all the presumptions in HB 7814. But let us examine one mentioned in the March 9 Inquirer editorial: “Unless proven otherwise, any person found or is present within or inside the place of sale, trading, marketing, dispensation, delivery, or distribution of dangerous drugs is presumed to have been involved in the sale, trade, or distribution of such drugs…”

Barbers counters that “mere presence in the place where drug transactions are happening does not make everyone in the vicinity a suspect,” explaining “… there must be an unlawful act/overt act… in order that he/she will be charged for the violation.”

Here lies the crux of the dispute on disputable presumptions: Barbers says the presumptions arise only after the precedent facts constituting the offense are established. On the other hand, critics like law dean Mel Sta. Maria talk of the bill’s empowerment of the police to arrest one who “just happens to pass by and (who) didn’t know there was [an ongoing illegal drug] transaction…”

I believe real risks arise when overzealous policemen take the role of judges in determining probable cause to arrest and search without warrants on the basis of these disputable presumptions.

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The issues on arrest and search warrants are so complicated and so difficult that sagacious justices have for many decades disagreed on their application. And even the latest jurisprudence (People v. Sapla, June 16, 2020) that settled such issues “once and for all” was reached by a divided Supreme Court, 11-3. How then can policemen take on the delicate work that even the highest court is divided on?

To sum up, HB 7814 had been approved by the House but, thankfully, no senator has filed a counterpart measure. Rather than dive into this dispute, the Senate has more vital bills to work on—extreme poverty, unemployment, and, yes, the current pandemic. Anyway, if the purpose is to help the police in the war on drugs, the bill is no longer needed because recent jurisprudence had already done that. All that is needed is a better-informed and better-trained police.

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TAGS: Artemio V. Panganiban, disputable presumptions, presumption of guilt, presumption of innocence, With Due Respect
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