2017 Case Digest: Estipona v. Lobrigo and People




G.R. No. 226679               August 15, 2017


TOPIC: Section 23 of RA 9165, rule-making power of Supreme Court, equal protection clause

PONENTE: Peralta


Petitioner Estipona, Jr. was charged with violation of Section 11 of RA 9165.

On June 15, 2016, Estipona filed a Motion to Allow the Accused to Enter into a Plea Bargaining Agreement, praying to withdraw his not guilty plea and, instead, to enter a plea of guilty for violation of Section 12 (NOTE: should have been Section 15?) of the same law, with a penalty of rehabilitation in view of his being a first-time offender and the minimal quantity of the dangerous drug seized in his possession.

Petitioner argues that Section 23 of RA 9165 which prohibits plea bargaining in all violations of said law violates:

  1. The intent of the law expressed in paragraph 3, Section 2 thereof;
  2. The rule-making authority of the Supreme Court under Section 5(5), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution; and
  3. The principle of separation of powers among the three equal branches of the government.


  1. Whether or not Section 23 of RA 9165 is unconstitutional as it encroached upon the power of the Supreme Court to promulgate rules of procedure.
  2. Whether or not Section 23 of RA 9165 is unconstitutional for being violative of the Constitutional right to equal protection of the law.



The Supreme Court held that the power to promulgate rules of pleading, practice and procedure is now Their exclusive domain and no longer shared with the Executive and Legislative departments.

The Court further held that the separation of powers among the three co-equal branches of our government has erected an impregnable wall that keeps the power to promulgate rules of pleading, practice and procedure within the sole province of this Court.  The other branches trespass upon this prerogative if they enact laws or issue orders that effectively repeal, alter or modify any of the procedural rules promulgated by the Court.

Viewed from this perspective, the Court had rejected previous attempts on the part of the Congress, in the exercise of its legislative power, to amend the Rules of Court (Rules), to wit:

  1. Fabian v. Desierto -Appeal from the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman in an administrative disciplinary case should be taken to the Court of Appeals under the provisions of Rule 43 of the Rules instead of appeal by certiorari under Rule 45 as provided in Section 27 of R.A. No. 6770.
  2. Cathay Metal Corporation v. Laguna West Multi-Purpose Cooperative, Inc. – The Cooperative Code provisions on notices cannot replace the rules on summons under Rule 14 of the Rules.
  3. RE: Petition for Recognition of the Exemption of the GSIS from Payment of Legal Fees; Baguio Market Vendors MultiPurpose Cooperative (BAMARVEMPCO) v. Hon. Judge Cabato-Cortes; In Re: Exemption of the National Power Corporation from Payment of Filing/Docket Fees; and Rep. of the Phils. v. Hon. Mangotara, et al. – Despite statutory provisions, the GSIS, BAMARVEMPCO, and NPC are not exempt from the payment of legal fees imposed by Rule 141 of the Rules.
  4. Carpio-Morales v. Court of Appeals (Sixth Division) – The first paragraph of Section 14 of R.A. No. 6770, which prohibits courts except the Supreme Court from issuing temporary restraining order and/or writ of preliminary injunction to enjoin an investigation conducted by the Ombudsman, is unconstitutional as it contravenes Rule 58 of the Rules.

Considering that the aforesaid laws effectively modified the Rules, this Court asserted its discretion to amend, repeal or even establish new rules of procedure, to the exclusion of the legislative and executive branches of government. To reiterate, the Court’s authority to promulgate rules on pleading, practice, and procedure is exclusive and one of the safeguards of Our institutional independence.


The Supreme Court did not resolve the issue of whether Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165 is contrary to the constitutional right to equal protection of the law in order not to preempt any future discussion by the Court on the policy considerations behind Section 23 of R.A. No. 9165.

Pending deliberation on whether or not to adopt the statutory provision in toto or a qualified version thereof, the Court deemed it proper to declare as invalid the prohibition against plea bargaining on drug cases until and unless it is made part of the rules of procedure through an administrative circular duly issued for the purpose.


Plea bargaining is a rule of procedure

Fabian v. Hon. Desierto laid down the test for determining whether a rule is substantive or procedural in nature.

In determining whether a rule prescribed by the Supreme Court, for the practice and procedure of the lower courts, abridges, enlarges, or modifies any substantive right, the test is whether the rule really regulates procedure, that is, the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties recognized by substantive law and for justly administering remedy and redress for a disregard or infraction of them. If the rule takes away a vested right, it is not procedural. If the rule creates a right such as the right to appeal, it may be classified as a substantive matter; but if it operates as a means of implementing an existing right then the rule deals merely with procedure.

In several occasions, We dismissed the argument that a procedural rule violates substantive rights. By the same token, it is towards the provision of a simplified and inexpensive procedure for the speedy disposition of cases in all courts that the rules on plea bargaining was introduced. As a way of disposing criminal charges by agreement of the parties, plea bargaining is considered to be an “important,” “essential,” “highly desirable,” and “legitimate” component of the administration of justice.

In this jurisdiction, plea bargaining has been defined as “a process whereby the accused and the prosecution work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval.” There is give-and-take negotiation common in plea bargaining.  The essence of the agreement is that both the prosecution and the defense make concessions to avoid potential losses. Properly administered, plea bargaining is to be encouraged because the chief virtues of the system – speed, economy, and finality – can benefit the accused, the offended party, the prosecution, and the court.

Considering the presence of mutuality of advantage, the rules on plea bargaining neither create a right nor take away a vested right. Instead, it operates as a means to implement an existing right by regulating the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties recognized by substantive law and for justly administering remedy and redress for a disregard or infraction of them.

No constitutional right to plea bargain

Yet a defendant has no constitutional right to plea bargain. No basic rights are infringed by trying him rather than accepting a plea of guilty; the prosecutor need not do so if he prefers to go to trial.  Under the present Rules, the acceptance of an offer to plead guilty is not a demandable right but depends on the consent of the offended party and the prosecutor, which is a condition precedent to a valid plea of guilty to a lesser offense that is necessarily included in the offense charged.  The reason for this is that the prosecutor has full control of the prosecution of criminal actions; his duty is to always prosecute the proper offense, not any lesser or graver one, based on what the evidence on hand can sustain.

Plea bargaining, when allowed

Plea bargaining is allowed during the arraignment, the pre-trial, or even up to the point when the prosecution already rested its case.

As regards plea bargaining during the pre-trial stage, the trial court’s exercise of discretion should not amount to a grave abuse thereof.

If the accused moved to plead guilty to a lesser offense subsequent to a bail hearing or after the prosecution rested its case, the rules allow such a plea only when the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to establish the guilt of the crime charged. The only basis on which the prosecutor and the court could rightfully act in allowing change in the former plea of not guilty could be nothing more and nothing less than the evidence on record. The ruling on the motion must disclose the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s evidence. Absent any finding on the weight of the evidence on hand, the judge’s acceptance of the defendant’s change of plea is improper and irregular.

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