Rights of the Accused in Criminal Prosecution
Article III, Section 14 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides that:
“(1) No person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law.1
“(2) In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved, and shall enjoy the right to be heard by himself and counsel, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him, to have a speedy, impartial, and public trial, to meet the witnesses face to face, and to have compulsory process to secure the attendance of witnesses and the production of evidence in his behalf. However, after arraignment, trial may proceed notwithstanding the absence of the accused provided that he has been duly notified and his failure to appear is unjustifiable.”2
Section 14 is divided into two parts. The first paragraph discusses procedural due process in criminal offenses, while the second paragraph focuses on the rights of the accused in all criminal prosecutions.
The first paragraph of Section 14 simply requires that the procedure established by law be followed. The Court in the case of Nuñez vs. Sandiganbayan3 explained that:
“In criminal proceedings then, due process is satisfied if the accused is informed as to why he is proceeded against and what charge he has to meet, with his conviction being made to rest on evidence that is not tainted with falsity after full opportunity for him to rebut it and the sentence being imposed in accordance with a valid law. It is assumed, of course, that the court that rendered the decision is one of competent jurisdiction.”4
Constitutional Protection of the Accused
The second paragraph enumerates some of the basic rights of the accused, namely:
(1) right to be presumed innocent,
(2) to be heard by himself and counsel,
(3) to be informed of the nature and cause of the charge,
(4) to have a speedy, impartial, and public trial,
(5) right of confrontation, and
(6) right to have compulsory process.
Presumption of innocence
According to the Constitution, an accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proven beyond reasonable doubt.
In the case of Dumlao vs. COMELEC,5 the Court invalidated a provision of Batas Pambansa Blg. 52 which states that a filing of charges for the commission of a crime before a court or military tribunal after preliminary investigation shall be prima facie evidence of disqualification as a candidate for a political office.
The Court ruled that, although such filing of charges constitutes only prima facie evidence and is subject to rebuttal, the proximity of elections and the risk of not having enough time to rebut the evidence make the accused suffer as though guilty even before trial.
It is the prosecution which has the burden of overcoming such presumption of innocence by presenting the quantum of evidence required. Furthermore, the prosecution must only rest on its own merits and must not rely on the weakness of the defense.
In instances where the prosecution fails to meet the required quantum of evidence, the defense may not even present evidence on its own behalf. Thus, the presumption of innocence shall prevail, and the accused shall be acquitted.
As stated above, the presumption of innocence is overcome only by proof beyond reasonable doubt. The presumption remains, however, as long as the defense is able to present evidence which is enough to create reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, what the law requires is not absolute certainty of guilt but a moral certainty to every proposition of proof to convict a criminal charge.
On the other hand, there would be enough ground for conviction if the accused fails to present evidence creating reasonable doubt. It is the conviction that can terminate the presumption.
However, the presumption remains if the initial conviction is appealed. Thus, the accused still enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence if the conviction by a lower court is still on appeal because it has not yet reached finality.
In People vs. Mingming,6 the Supreme Court laid down the elements that the prosecution must do in order to get a conviction:
“First, the accused enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence until final conviction; conviction requires no less than evidence sufficient to arrive at a moral certainty of guilt, not only with respect to the existence of a crime, but, more importantly, of the identity of the accused as the author of the crime.7
Second, the prosecution’s case must rise and fall on its own merits and cannot draw its strength from the weakness of the defense.”8
It is important to note that the presumption of innocence does not preclude statutory provisions of presumption of guilt. Likewise, the existence of a presumption of guilt of the accused does not in itself destroy the constitutional presumption of innocence unless the inculpating presumption, together with all the evidence, proves the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
Related to the presumption of innocence is the equipoise doctrine. Under this doctrine, if the evidence of the parties in a criminal case is evenly balanced, the constitutional presumption of innocence should tilt the scales in favor of the accused. Clearly, the equipoise doctrine cannot be invoked where the evidence of the prosecution is overwhelming.
Right to be heard
The right to be heard includes the right to present evidence and to be present at the trial. The right to present evidence involves the right to testify in one’s behalf and the right to be given time to call witnesses. If an accused is charged of two offenses, he is entitled to a trial of each case.
It is a mistake to consider in one case the evidence adduced against him in another. Furthermore, an accused has the right to present evidence even after a motion to dismiss has been denied.
Another important part of the right to be heard is the right to be present at the trial. The accused in criminal cases has an absolute right to be personally present during the entire proceedings from arraignment to promulgation of sentence.
However, the right of the accused to be present may be waived totally because of the new provision allowing trial in absentia except in cases when his presence is needed for purposes of identification.
Right to counsel
Right to be heard will be for naught if it does not include the right to counsel. A person without aid of a counsel may be put on trial without a proper charge and may be convicted upon incompetent evidence or evidence irrelevant to the issue. Thus, the guarantee of the right to counsel serves to minimize the power imbalance in court proceedings.
The right to counsel has five basic elements, namely:
(1) the court is duty bound to inform the accused that he has a right to an attorney before the arraignment;
(2) the court must ask the accused if he desires the service of a lawyer;
(3) the court must assign a counsel de officio if he desires the service of a lawyer but is unable to get one;
(4) the court must give him time to obtain a private counsel if he wishes to procure one; and
(5) the court may appoint any person resident of the province with good repute for probity and ability in cases wherein duly authorized members of the bar are not available.
Similarly, Section 6 of Rule 116 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that:
“Before arraignment, the court shall inform the accused of his right to counsel and ask him if he desires to have one. Unless the accused is allowed to defend himself in person or has employed a counsel of his choice, the court must assign a counsel de oficio to defend him.”9
It should be noted that the counsel de officio must be a qualified lawyer. Moreover, the court’s duty to appoint a counsel de officio is mandatory only at the time of arraignment.
Hence, the appointment of counsel de officio is no longer applicable when the accused has proceeded with the arraignment and trial with a counsel of his choice, and the accused appears by himself alone and the absence of his counsel is inexcusable when the time for the presentation of evidence for the defense has arrived.
Yet, there is no denial of such right where a counsel de officio was appointed during the absence of the accused’s counsel de parte pursuant to the court’s desire to finish the case early under the continuous trial system.
Right to be informed
It was stated in U.S. vs. Karelsen10 that:
“The object of this written accusation was — First. To furnish the accused with such a description of the charge against him as will enable him to make his defense; and second, to avail himself of his conviction or acquittal for protection against a further prosecution for the same cause; and third, to inform the court of the facts alleged, so that it may decide whether they are sufficient in law to support a conviction, if one should be had. In order that this requirement may be satisfied, facts must be stated; not conclusions of law. Every crime is made up of certain acts and intent; these must be set forth in the complaint with reasonable particularity of time, place, names (plaintiff and defendant), and circumstances. In short, the complaint must contain a specific allegation of every fact and circumstance necessary to constitute the crime charged.”11
Thus, it is important that the accused is informed of the facts imputed to him, and the information must describe the act with sufficient particularity. If the accused is charged with two information containing two sets of facts, there should be two separate verdicts for the two information.
The combination of the facts in the two information in order to allow a conviction for a complex crime consisting of the allegations in the two information would violate a person’s right to be informed of the accusation against him.
Speedy, impartial, and public trial
A speedy trial is said to be a two-edged sword because it can work against or to the advantage of the accused. The delay in trial, disappearance of witnesses, and dimming of memories have the possibility of lessening the chances of conviction.
Likewise, the witnesses of the accused can disappear or suffer a similar dimming of memory. Thus, the concept of speedy trial is relative; the determination whether the right has been violated must be based on various factors.
The remedy for the violation of the right to speedy trial is dismissal of the case and release by habeas corpus if the accused is under detention. Furthermore, the dismissal of the case is equivalent to acquittal and is therefore a bar to subsequent prosecution for the same offense.
All parties are entitled to the cold neutrality of an independent, wholly-free, disinterested and impartial tribunal because impartiality is an imperative need that is needed in the decision making process that follows the trial.
A trial is public when anyone interested in observing the manner a judge conducts the proceedings in his courtroom may do so as there is no ban on such attendance. However, a recognized exception is that the general public may be excluded when the evidence presented in the proceeding may be characterized as offensive to decency or public morals.
Right to confrontation
The right to cross-examine the witness against him at the trial has two-fold purpose; (1) to afford the accused an opportunity to test the testimony of the witness by cross-examination, and (2) to allow the judge to observe the deportment of the witness. Corollary to this right is that testimony not subject to cross-examination must be excluded from consideration.
Equally important as the other rights mentioned above is the right to compulsory process for the attendance of witnesses. This right may not be invoked by the accused if he made no effort during the trial to avail himself of it. Furthermore, the accused, in order to establish the right to continuance by reason of the absence of witnesses, must show:
(1) that the witness is really material,
(2) that he is guilty of no neglect in previously obtaining attendance of said witness,
(3) that the witness will be available at the time desired, and
(4) that no similar evidence could be obtained.
In essence therefore, the Constitution guarantees a fair criminal prosecution by placing a limit on how the state may use its immense powers to investigate crimes and obtain evidence. This limitation flows from the Bill of Rights. Accused’s rights are protected by this constitutional guarantee, especially during criminal prosecutions, although it should be emphasized that there are some differences in how they operate.
- Article III, Section 14, 1987 Philippine Constitution
- G.R. Nos. L-50581-50617, January 30, 1982
- G.R. No. L-52245, January 22, 1980
- G.R. No. 174195, December 10, 2008
- Section 6 of Rule 116, Rules of Criminal Procedure
- G.R. No. 1376, January 21, 1904