Don’t weaponize the law | Inquirer Opinion
With Due Respect

Don’t weaponize the law

By its recent decisions and its new reform program, the Supreme Court, I am happy to note, is continuing the activist and libertarian streaks of its predecessors. Among these decisions are Vhong Navarro v. Deniece Cornejo (Feb. 8, 2023) that struck down the weaponization of preliminary investigations (PI); Ditiangkin v. Lazada (Sept. 21, 2022) that, per an Inquirer editorial, was a “(g)ame-changing ruling for workers”; Reyes v. Director (Jan. 17, 2023) that freed Gigi Reyes for serious violations of her constitutional rights; and PCGG v. Ombudsman (Jan. 17, 2023) that acquitted the late Roberto Ongpin. On reforms, I am referring to the historic “Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovation 2022-2027” (SPJI) that the Gesmundo Court is busy pursuing with unprecedented passion.

TODAY, I HAVE SPACE ONLY FOR NAVARRO V. CORNEJO (Third Division, expertly penned by J Henri Jean Paul B. Inting, concurred unanimously by JJ Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, chairperson, Samuel H. Gaerlan, Japar B. Dimaampao, and Maria Filomena D. Singh). To understand why this decision is essential, let me detail the facts.


Against popular actor and TV host Vhong Navarro, model Deniece Cornejo filed with the Office of the City Prosecutor (OCP) of Taguig three separate complaints (1) dated Jan. 29, 2014, for rape allegedly committed on Jan. 22, 2014; (2) dated Feb. 27, 2014, for rape allegedly committed on Jan. 17, 2014, while “(n)otably … silent about the Jan. 22, 2014 incident,” and (3) dated Oct. 16, 2015 (after over a year), for rape and attempted rape allegedly committed on Jan. 17, 2014, and Jan. 22, 2014, respectively, the same dates as in the first and second complaints.

In his affidavit, Navarro countersued with “(a) complaints for Serious Illegal Detention, Serious Physical Injuries, Grave Threats, Grave Coercion, Illegal Arrest, and threatening to publish and offer to prevent such publication for a compensation against Cornejo and her friends: Cedric Lee, Bernice Cua Lee (Bernice Lee), Ferdinand Guerrero (Guerrero), Simeon “Zimmer” Palma Raz, Jr. (Raz), Jose Paolo Gregorio A. Calma (Calma), Sajed Fernandez Abuhijleh (Fernandez), and other John Does; (b) complaint for Perjury … against Cornejo; and (c) complaint for Perjury against Cedric Lee and Raz.”


THE THREE COMPLAINTS FILED BY CORNEJO AGAINST NAVARRO WERE DISMISSED by the OCP for “lack of probable cause while finding probable cause against Cornejo and her friends … for serious illegal detention and grave coercion.” Acting on Cornejo’s appeal, the Department of Justice (DOJ) upheld the OCP. Meanwhile, on July 27, 2018, the Metropolitan Trial Court (MeTC) of Taguig convicted Cornejo, Cedric Lee, and Fernandez of grave coercion while the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of the same city denied on July 31, 2019, the appeal of Cornejo and Lee from the MeTC but acquitted Fernandez.

Acting on a petition for certiorari filed by Cornejo, et al., the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed the DOJ and directed the OCP to file charges against Navarro for (1) “Rape by sexual intercourse” (there are other kinds of rape) “relative to the Jan. 17, 2014 incident,” and (2) acts of lasciviousness “pertaining to the Jan. 22, 2014 incident.” Since rape is a capital offense, Navarro was ordered arrested and detained.

GRANTING NAVARRO’S PETITION FOR REVIEW, the Supreme Court reversed the CA with these teachings:

First, the determination of probable cause during a PI is executive in nature and belongs to the public prosecutors. “Judicial intrusion is justified [only] when the exercise of such authority is tainted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction…” After meticulously examining the evidence, especially the strangulating affidavits of Cornejo, the Court concluded that the OCP performed its duty fairly and objectively. Thus, the CA’s intrusion was totally unjustified.

Second, a PI, though summary in nature, is a “crucial sieve in the criminal justice system [that] spells … the difference between months if not years of agonizing trial and possibly jail term, on the one hand, and peace of mind and liberty, on the other. Factors such as the gravity of the crime charged and the resulting deprivation of liberty during the pendency of the case, necessitate careful and deliberate evaluation of evidence by the prosecutor … before filing the information in court.”

Third and most important, the powerful, the rich, and the rogue should never weaponize the law to terrorize the innocent because the long arm of the law will eventually circle back and catch them. Cornejo and her friends filed multiple capital offenses to extort millions of pesos from Navarro. Though the OCP and the DOJ correctly threw out their false and outrageous complaints, the CA—despite the failure of Cornejo to exhaust the administrative remedy of an appeal to the Office of the President—egregiously took over and caused the unwarranted arrest and detention of Navarro, a takeover firmly corrected by the Supreme Court. That the law is circling back is shown not only by the acquittal of Navarro but also by the conviction of Cornejo and Lee of grave coercion by the MeTC and RTC of Taguig.

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