House of Representatives

House OKs bill that presumes drug suspects guilty until proven innocent

Mara Cepeda

Shutterstock photo

House committee on human rights chair Bong Suntay warns if the bill becomes law, the accused 'may now be convicted on mere presumptions'

The House of Representatives passed a bill providing for legal presumption on who is considered an importer, financier, or protector of illegal drugs – meaning suspects would be presumed guilty upon apprehension. 

On Tuesday, March 2, lawmakers approved on final reading House Bill (HB) No 7814, which aimed to give more teeth to Republic Act No. 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. 

A total of 188 legislators – a majority of whom are allies of President Rodrigo Duterte – voted in favor of HB 7814, while only 11 voted no and 9 abstained. 

The Duterte-controlled House approved the bill just days after the shootout between agents of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency – the vanguards of Duterte’s landmark but deadly campaign against illegal drugs

Most of the House members who opposed the bill or abstained from the vote raised red flags over the HB 7814’s provisions that presumes the guilt of drug suspects without proper investigation by law enforcement agents.

House committee on human rights chair Jesus “Bong” Suntay voted against the bill since it contained 20 presumptions of guilt on drug-related criminal acts that would result to a penalty of life imprisonment. 

“I am in full support of this administration’s campaign against illegal drugs and in this respect, I would not want our country to be a transshipment destination of dangerous drugs. However, as a lawyer, I do not want to send the wrong message to the PDEA, to the police authorities and the prosecution that an accused may now be convicted on mere presumptions,” said Suntay.

Under the bill, a person is immediately presumed to be a protector or coddler of illegal drugs if he or she knows an importer or exporter and helps the latter evade arrest.

“Unless proven otherwise, a person who shields, harbors, screens, or facilitates the escape of, or prevents the arrest, prosecution, or conviction of the importer or exporter is presumed to have knowledge of, or has willfully consented to, the illegal importation or exportation and that he/she used his/her influencer, power or position,” read HB 7814. 

HB 7814 also states that a person found in possession of a purchase order, receipt, bill of lading or similar document  related to the importation or exportation of illegal drugs “is, until proven otherwise, presumed to have imported or exported” the illegal substances.

The bill likewise presumes a person is a drug financier if he or she would “cause the payment, raises, provides or supplies money for or underwrites” the importation of illegal drugs. 

Any evidence showing that money was transferred to a person or entity link to drug importer or exporter would be considered “prime facie proof of consent to or knowledge” of the sender, transferor, or issuer.

HB 7814 states this presumption may be overturned “upon presentation of proof that the importation or exportation is authorized or valid.”

The bill also proposes a provision stating that “unless proven otherwise,” a person found present in the immediate vicinity of an area where illegal drugs are being sold, delivered, or distributed “is presumed to have been involved” in the illegal drug trade. 

“Negligent” owners or lessors of properties used as secret laboratories for illegal drugs would be penalized under HB 7814 with jail time ranging from 6 years and 1 day up 12 years, and a fine between P500,000 to P1 million.

No more presumption of innocence

House committee on dangerous drugs chair Robert Ace Barbers defended the bill by saying the proposed amendments would make it easier to go after drug suspects and their accomplices.

“If before, these personalities go scot-free, now these legal presumptions will put them on almost the same footing as the drug suspects themselves because of the presence of factual circumstances that will incriminate them and thus could make them liable under the amended law,” said Barbers in a statement.

“There will be no place for them to hide now and their world will be much smaller if these amendments will be passed quickly,” he added.

But Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte said HB 7814 violates the presumption of innocence enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

“Sa ngayon, sa giyera sa droga, madaming namamatay sa maling akala. Pati mga law enforcers natin sila-sila, nagkakapatayan na nga,” said Belmonte. 

(In the war on drugs, many have died because of wrong assumptions. Even our law enforcers have killed each other.

“Pero the way nakasulat ang batas ngayon sa mga alanganing presumptions at presumptions on presumptions na ipinasok natin, lalong maraming inosenteng mapapahamak sa maling akala,” he added. 

(But the way this bill was written, with the presumptions and presumptions on presumptions that we included here, more innocent people would be endangered because of wrong assumptions.)

Duterte has been criticized for waging his bloody war against drugs, where thousands of drug suspects have been killed in legitimate police operations and vigilante-style killings. 

Rappler’s investigations have showed a systemic delay in the criminal investigation of these drug-related deaths. Police reports on anti-drug operations submitted to the Supreme Court were also poorly documented, casting doubts over the legitimacy of Duterte’s drug war. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.