Last Friday, in the case of People v. Efren M. Morillo (Criminal Case No. 16-09092-CR), Morillo was acquitted of what the Revised Penal Code defines as a Crime Against Public Order. He was charged with direct assault for allegedly attacking Philippine National Police officers who were “in the performance of their official duties and functions.” In this case, these “duties and functions” referred to none other than Oplan Tokhang.
On Aug. 21, 2016, the police claimed that in the course of their operations, Morillo and his group “immediately drew their guns and fired at their direction.” The PNP added that “left without recourse,” it “fired at the group to neutralize them,” with Morillo as the lone survivor. This charge of direct assault against Morillo was, in so many words, but legal euphemism for the usual PNP claim of “nanlaban (fought back).” But the decision of the Quezon City trial court tells a much different story.
In a ruling promulgated on March 17, 2023, the court ruled that the “Prosecution fell short of proving that accused Morillo seriously resisted and attacked the police operatives.” Further, the court acknowledged that “[w]hile the law enforcers enjoy the presumption of regularity in the performance of their duties, this presumption cannot prevail over the constitutional right of the accused to be presumed innocent[.]” Justice may have won that day, but it was justice not for Morillo alone.
Indeed, People v. Morillo brings with it relevance beyond the case. Through his bravery and resilience, in the grander scheme of things, Morillo did much more than just prove his innocence. Through his acquittal, he also disproved the main justifications for the killings in the nation’s drug war. Since Oplan Tokhang was first launched in 2016, the Philippine government has invoked two defenses to evade accountability. The first is the presumption of regularity in the performance of its public duties—a deference doctrine by which courts presume that government officials have properly discharged their official duties. The second is the doctrine of self-defense. It claims that those killed in the drug war fought back (nanlaban) and were killed in legitimate police operations.
In People v. Morillo, both nanlaban and the presumption of regularity were rejected. The case speaks not only to the unabashed violence and abuse of power in the drug war. It likewise reveals the government’s unabashed hubris. Imagine: unsatisfied with its attempt on the life of Morillo, the PNP officers pushed things even further by suing him in court. Further, the case illustrates how violence is not only found at the end of a gun’s barrel. That state misdeed may take the shape of warfare and lawfare alike, not only in the streets but state-sanctioned processes as well.
I imagine that the PNP officers thought themselves to be quite clever in charging Morillo. After all, if victims of the drug war were presumed to have fought back, then a charge of direct assault would arguably be the logical next step. It wasn’t enough to talk the talk, they thought. They had to walk it, too. Yet that’s where their greatest error lies. Filing a suit turned out to be their own undoing. By bringing not just any case, but a criminal case against Morillo, the government propped itself at the bottom of an uphill path. There, the presumption of regularity, the “nanlaban” defense, and the legality of the Oplan Tokhang operation writ large were all of a sudden pitted against the higher evidentiary thresholds of criminal procedure. The government must be kicking itself with this recent decision. All this while the PNP feigned compliance with the law and hid behind legal presumptions.
By filing this case, the PNP officers placed themselves in a position where they could not simply rely on vague invocations. They had to prove the charge, and no less beyond reasonable doubt. It’s like the student who volunteers for a recitation only to fall flat on his or her face. The state signed up for this case, thus in more ways than one, it only has itself to blame.
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