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Bitoon vs. Judge Toledo-Mupas Case Digest


The municipal trial judge has no legal authority to determine the character of the crime. His authority is limited to determining whether the evidence presented supports prima facie the allegations of facts in the complaint. It is the prosecutor who has the power to determine the character of the crime or to change the designation of the crime as may be warranted by the facts.

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Facts: 

Bitoon and 3 others filed three criminal complaints against Malihan and 6 others for syndicated estafa. According to complainants, the accused, who represented themselves as officers of the Rapasedala Parents and Community Association Phase I and Phase II, Inc., induced said complainants to become members of the association under promise that if they did, they could buy at a discount, lands owned by the association. Complainants agreed to buy lots. However, after paying several installments on their chosen lots, said complainants discovered that none of the lands sold to them was owned by the association. They also learned that the accused only misappropriated their money.

Malihan later filed a Petition for Bail. The petition was set for hearing, but on the scheduled date, respondent Judge did not conduct a hearing. She simply ordered complainant Atty. Clorina-Rentoy to file her comment or opposition to the petition. Later, respondent granted the petition on the ground that the crime committed was only simple estafa and thus, bail was a matter of right.

An administrative case was filed against respondent for gross ignorance of the law (a) gross ignorance of the law, (b) manifest bias and partiality, and (c) conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

In her comment, respondent insists that she acted properly. She explains that a hearing on Malihan's application for bail was unnecessary because Malihan was entitled to bail as a matter of right. According to respondent, the allegations from both parties showed that Rapasedala Parents and Community Association Phase I and Phase II, Inc., is not a rural bank, cooperative, samahang nayon or farmers association, nor is it a corporation or association operating on funds solicited from the public. Also, it appeared that accused Malihan acted alone in swindling complainants. Hence, it was clear that the crime of syndicated estafa was not committed.


Issue:

Should respondent be held administratively liable?


Held:

It is basic that in the preliminary investigation of a criminal offense, the municipal trial judge has no legal authority to determine the character of the crime. His authority is limited to determining whether the evidence presented supports prima facie the allegations of facts in the complaint. It is the prosecutor who has the power to determine the character of the crime or to change the designation of the crime as may be warranted by the facts.

Likewise, every judge should know by heart that in indictments for capital offenses like syndicated estafa, bail shall not be granted when the evidence of guilt is strong. Though the determination of whether or not the evidence of guilt is strong is a matter of judicial discretion, this discretion lies not in the determination of whether or not a hearing should be held, but in the appreciation and evaluation of the weight of the prosecutions evidence of guilt against the accused. A hearing is absolutely necessary and indispensable because the judge may rightly exercise this discretion only after the evidence is submitted to the court at the hearing. The prosecution must be given an opportunity to present, within a reasonable time, all the evidence necessary for its opposition to the grant of bail. Evidence of guilt must be submitted to the court, the petitioner having the right of cross-examination and to introduce his own evidence in rebuttal, because the discretion is directed to the weight of the evidence. In turn, evidence cannot properly be weighed if not duly exhibited or produced before the court.

Here, it is beyond dispute that respondent changed the designation of the crime from a non-bailable offense to a bailable one, that is, from syndicated estafa to simple estafa. She then granted bail to accused Malihan without hearing on the ground that Malihan is entitled to bail as a matter of right. In so doing, respondent exceeded her authority in the conduct of preliminary investigations, and failed to observe the elementary procedural rules on bail.

It is settled that one who accepts the exalted position of a judge owes the public and the court the ability to be proficient in the law and the duty to maintain professional competence at all times. Basic rules must be in the palm of his hand. He must be acquainted not only with legal norms and precepts, but with procedural rules as well. Gross ignorance of the law and incompetence are characteristics impermissible in a judge. He is called upon to exhibit more than just a cursory acquaintance with statutes and procedural rules; it is imperative that he be conversant with elementary rules of procedure as well as settled authoritative doctrines. Failure to follow the basic laws and rules on preliminary investigations and on bail is inexcusable and renders the erring judge susceptible to administrative sanction for gross ignorance of the law. (Bitoon vs. Judge Toledo-Mupas, A.M. No. MTJ-05-1598. August 9, 2005)

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