CASE IN POINT by Dean Ed Vincent Albano | Speedy disposition of cases

Vexations delay results in dismissal of a case.

In Commodore Lamberto Torres v. SB, et al., G.R. No. 221562-69, October 5, 2016, Velasco, J, from the time the Affidavit of COA Auditors and the COA Audit Report were turned over to the Ombudsman for review and scrutiny for at least 8 years before the Ombudsman ordered the conduct of the investigation, it took 16 years before the Ombudsman found probable cause. Ruling that there was delay and a violation of the right to speedy disposition of the cases, the SC

Held: The speedy disposition of cases covers not only the period within which the preliminary investigation was conducted, but also all stages to which the accused is subjected, even including fact-finding investigations conducted prior to the preliminary investigation proper. In Dansal v. Fernandez, Sr., G.R. No. 126814, March 2, 2000, it was said:

Initially embodied in Section 16, Article IV of the 1973 Constitution, the aforesaid constitutional provision is one of three provisions mandating speedier dispensation of justice. It guarantees the right of all persons to “a speedy disposition of their case”; includes within its contemplation the periods before, during and after trial, and affords broader protection than Section 14(2), which guarantees just the right to a speedy trial. It is more embracing than the protection under Article VII, Section 15, which covers only the period after the submission of the case. The present constitutional provision applies to civil, criminal and administrative cases.

Considering that the subject transactions were allegedly committed in 1991 and 1992, and the fact-finding and preliminary investigations were ordered to be conducted in 2004, the length of time which lapsed before the Ombudsman was able to resolve the case and actually file the Informations against petitioner was undeniably long-drawnout.

Any delay in the investigation and prosecution of cases must be duly justified. The State must prove that the delay in the prosecution was reasonable, or that the delay was not attributable to it (People of the Philippines v. Hon. Sandiganbayan, First Division & Third Division, et al., G.R. No. 188165, December 11, 2013). In Coscolluela v. Sandiganbayan (First Division), G.R. No. 191411, July 15, 2013 is instructive:

Verily, the Office of the Ombudsman was created under the mantle of the Constitution, mandated to be the “protector of the people” and as such, required to “act promptly on complaints filed in any form or manner against officers and employees of the Government, or of any subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof, in order to promote efficient service.”

This great responsibility cannot be simply brushed aside by ineptitude. Precisely, the Office of the Ombudsman has the inherent duty not only to carefully go through the particulars of case but also to resolve the same within the proper length of time. Its dutiful performance should not only be gauged by the quality of the assessment but also by the reasonable promptness of its dispensation. Thus, barring any extraordinary complication, such as the degree of difficulty of the questions involved in the case or any event external thereto that effectively stymied its normal work activity – any of which have not been adequately proven by the prosecution in the case at bar – there appears to be no justifiable basis as to why the Office of the Ombudsman could not have earlier resolved the preliminary investigation proceedings against the petitioners.

In the present case, respondents failed to submit any justifiable reason for the protracted conduct of the investigations and in the issuance of the resolution finding probable cause.

The petitioner asserted his right to a speedy disposition of cases at the earliest possible time. When he filed his counter-affidavit, he had already argued that dismissal of the case is proper because the long delayed proceedings violated his constitutional right to a speedy disposition of cases. He wasted no time to assert his right to have the cases against him dismissed.

Prejudice petitioner suffered.

As for the prejudice caused by the delay, respondents claim that no prejudice was caused to petitioner from the delay in the second set of investigations because he never participated therein and was actually never even informed of the proceedings anyway. A similar assertion was struck down by this Court in Coscolluela, to wit:

Lest it be misunderstood, the right to speedy disposition of cases is not merely hinged towards the objective of spurring dispatch in the administration of justice but also to prevent the oppression of the citizen by holding a criminal prosecution suspended over him for an indefinite time. Akin to the right to speedy trial, its “salutary objective” is to assure that an innocent person may be free from the anxiety and expense of litigation or, if otherwise, of having his guilt determined within the shortest possible time compatible with the presentation and consideration of whatsoever legitimate defense he may interpose. This looming unrest as well as the tactical disadvantages carried by the passage of time should be weighed against the State and in favor of the individual. In the context of the right to a speedy trial, the Court in Corpuz v. Sandiganbayan (Corpuz) illumined:

A balancing test of applying societal interests and the rights of the accused necessarily compels the court to approach speedy trial cases on an ad hoc basis.

x x x Prejudice should be assessed in the light of the interest of the defendant that the speedy trial was designed to protect, namely: to prevent oppressive pre-trial incarceration; to minimize anxiety and concerns of the accused to trial; and to limit the possibility that his defense will be impaired. Of these, the most serious is the last, because the inability of a defendant adequately to prepare his case skews the fairness of the entire system. There is also prejudice if the defense witnesses are unable to recall accurately the events of the distant past. Even if the accused is not imprisoned prior to trial, he is still disadvantaged by restraints on his liberty and by living under a cloud of anxiety, suspicion and often, hostility. His financial resources may be drained, his association is curtailed, and he is subjected to public obloquy.

Delay is a two-edge sword. It is the government that bears the burden of proving its case beyond reasonable doubt. The passage of time may make it difficult or impossible for the government to carry its burden. The Constitution and the Rules do not require impossibilities or extraordinary efforts, diligence or exertion from courts or the prosecutor, nor contemplate that such right shall deprive the State of a reasonable opportunity of fairly prosecuting criminals. As held in Williams v. United States, for the government to sustain its right to try the accused despite a delay, it must show two things: (a) that the accused suffered no serious prejudice beyond that which ensued from the ordinary and inevitable delay; and (b) that there was no more delay than is reasonably attributable to the ordinary processes of justice.

Closely related to the length of delay is the reason or justification of the State for such delay. Different weights should be assigned to different reasons or justifications invoked by the State. For instance, a deliberate attempt to delay the trial in order to hamper or prejudice the defense should be weighted heavily against the State. Also, it is improper for the prosecutor to intentionally delay to gain some tactical advantage over the defendant or to harass or prejudice him. On the other hand, the heavy case load of the prosecution or a missing witness should be weighted less heavily against the State. x x x

As the right to a speedy disposition of cases encompasses the broader purview of the entire proceedings of which trial proper is but a stage, the above-discussed effects in Cm1Juz should equally apply to the case at bar.

Adopting respondents' position would defeat the very purpose of the right against speedy disposition of cases. Upholding the same would allow a scenario where the prosecution may deliberately exclude certain individuals from the investigation only to file the necessary cases at another, more convenient time, to the prejudice of the accused. Clearly, respondents' assertion is subject to abuse and cannot be countenanced.

In the present case, petitioner has undoubtedly been prejudiced by virtue of the delay in the resolution of the cases filed against him. Even though he was not initially included as a respondent in the investigation conducted from 1996 to 2006 pertaining to the "overpricing of medicines" procured through emergency purchase, he has already been deprived of the ability to adequately prepare his case considering that he may no longer have any access to records or contact with any witness in support of his defense. This is even aggravated by the fact that petitioner had been retired for fifteen (15) years. Even if he was never imprisoned and subjected to trial, it cannot be denied that he has lived under a cloud of anxiety by virtue of the delay in the resolution of his case.