De Lima's SC petition vs arrest order 'premature'

SENATOR Leila de Lima's petition in the Supreme Court questioning the legality of her arrest order and arrest warrant is premature, Associate Justice Presibitero Velasco Jr. said in Tuesday's oral arguments.

During the interpellation of Velasco to De Lima's legal counsel, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, he said De Lima's camp should have sought remedy first from the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court (RTC).

The Muntinlupa RTC ordered the arrest De Lima last month over drug charges in connection with the senator's alleged involvement in the proliferation of narcotics inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

Citing the hierarchy of courts, Velasco said De Lima should have sought remedy with the Court of Appeals (CA).

"There is still a pending incident and you are bypassing the RTC already by your petition here. Your relief actually is to order the RTC to not do anything with the case yet until the motion to quash is resolved. Precisely you are banking on the resolution of the RTC Muntinlupa to resolve first the motion to quash. This is too premature in my reading because that is exactly what you're asking us to do," Velasco said.

Hilbay in reply to Velasco argued that hierarchy of courts doctrine is general rule, but the senator's case falls under an exception.

Hilbay further said that the petitioner's frustration on the way her cases were handled prompted her to go straight to the high court.

Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, during his turn told Hilbay that De Lima's camp should have sought remedy with the lower courts first before going to the SC.

Peralta mentioned all the possible reliefs the senator could ask in lower courts including motion for reconsideration with the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a motion to quash based on lack of judicial determination of probable cause with the RTC.

Peralta said de Lima might have committed forum shopping when she filed a motion to quash the case with the RTC and a petition with the SC. The act alone, according to Peralta, is a sufficient ground for the dismissal of the senator's petition.

Velasco questioned the grounds raised by petitioner De Lima to declare that Judge Juanita Guerrero of Muntinlupa RTC branch 204 has acted with grave abuse of discretion when she ordered the arrest of the senator.

"Is it your contention that the RTC committed grave abuse of discretion without first resolving the motion to quash?," the Associate Justice asked Hilbay.

In De Lima's petition, she said Guerrero abuse her position when she ordered her arrest and issued the arrest warrant against her without resolving first the motion to quash.

"Is that the basic principle? The moment the motion to quash is filed with the accused that the judge cannot go on with determining the probable cause and issue the warrant?" Velasco further asked Hilbay.

"If this is recognizable in this jurisdiction then every lawyer for the accuse will just file a motion to quash, then they will tell the RTC, 'ops you're barred from issuing a warrant of arrest, you decide first on the motion to quash.' Is that what you want on this?" he added.

The Associated Justice also cited previous SC rulings where the RTC issued arrest warrants first before resolving the accused motions.

In reply Hilbay said: "No your honor... What we're saying in our petition is that as applied to the facts on this case, had this judge read the motion to quash, she would have definitely realized that she does not have jurisdiction [to decide the case]. Just by reading the motion to quash, at the very least that could have made the judge waiver about issuing the warrant of arrest."

De Lima in her petition argued that the Sandiganbayan has the sole jurisdiction over government officials, not the RTC.

However, this argument was contradicted by the Office of the Solicitor General.

In its comment, the SolGen said that under Section 90 of the Republic Act 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, the RTC has exclusive jurisdiction to try cases that falls under the violation of the dangerous drugs law.

Other Associate Justices who questioned Hilbay are Lucas Bersamin, Antonio Carpio, Teresita De Castro, Estrela Perlas Bernabe, Bienvenido Reyes and Justice Marvic Leonen.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has set the continuation of the oral arguments next Tuesday, March 21.

The remaining Associate Justices who failed to interpellate Hilbay will continue with the questioning before Solicitor General Jose Calida presents his arguments in behalf of Guerrero, PNP chief Ronald Dela Rosa and others. (SunStar Philippines)

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