Primacy Of Criminal Action

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“Criminal cases must be instituted only for offenses or felonies that have been committed, and for violations of laws which carry penal sanctions”

The view that filing a criminal case against an opposing party leads to the best realizable outcome may not always be the case.

Those who espouse this belief want to leverage against, threaten, or unsettle the opponent to achieve an anticipated result.

The filing of a criminal case, baseless as it is, is sometimes utilized by individuals to force the other party to settle or compromise on terms dictated by them. Afraid of imprisonment, embarrassment, and the uncertainty of litigation, the sued party may be forced to settle.

The practice of filing baseless criminal actions is not recommended since it: (a) adds to the clogging of court dockets; and (b) erodes the people’s trust in the legal system. Criminal cases must be instituted only for offenses or felonies that have been committed, and for violations of laws which carry penal sanctions.

Criminal cases cannot be based on suppositions or unsupported conclusions. This is the reason why criminal complaints must pass through preliminary investigation at the level of the City or Provincial Prosecutor.

The preliminary investigation’s goal is to determine whether or not the respondent is probably guilty of the crime. After the exchange of affidavits by the parties, and if the prosecutor is convinced that the respondent is probably guilty, a criminal information will be filed in court.

Once a criminal action has been commenced, the civil action arising from the commission of the offense or delict cannot be separately instituted. This is known as the primacy of criminal actions over civil actions arising from the delict.

When a criminal action is instituted, the civil action for the recovery of the civil liability arising from the commission of the crime is deemed simultaneously instituted (Section 1, Rule 111, Criminal Procedure).

The offended party’s civil claim is effectively joined with the State’s by operation of law, without the need for any legal action from the former.

However, the offended party may waive the civil action, institute the civil action prior to the criminal action, and reserves the right to institute it separately (Section 1, Rule 111).

A waiver is a voluntary relinquishment of a right which in this instance is the right to recover the civil liability arising from the crime.

The reservation is an option given to the offended party to recover the civil liability arising from the crime via a separate civil action.

However, the offended party will have to wait until the termination of the criminal action before he or she can proceed to recover the civil liability.

The reservation can be made before the prosecution starts presenting its evidence and under circumstances affording the offended party a reasonable opportunity to make such a reservation. As a consequence, he “loses his standing in a criminal case” (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing Tactaquin v. Palileo, G.R. No. L-20865, 29 December 1967).

The practical reason for requiring the reservation of the right to bring an action separately is to avoid the filing of more than one action for the same act or omission against the same party (Maniago v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 104392, 20 February 1996).

While reservation is a choice given to the offended party, the option is not given to offended parties in BP 22 cases (Section 1(b), Rule 111).

In case a civil action was instituted before the commencement of the criminal action, the civil action will be suspended for the period of time starting from the filing of the criminal action until the final judgment is made.

However, the civil action may be consolidated with the criminal action upon motion of the offended party (Section 1(b), Rule 111).

The rules on the primacy of criminal action will not apply when the civil action is rooted on the violation of rights and liberties (Article 32, Civil Code); defamation, fraud and physical injuries (Article 33); refusal or failure of a member of the police force to render aid to a person in danger (Article 34); and quasi-delict (Article 2176). These civil actions are known as independent civil actions.

Unlike reserved civil actions, the independent civil actions will have to proceed independently of the criminal action. The quantum of proof required for civil actions is preponderance of evidence and not proof beyond reasonable doubt, as in criminal actions.

Another instance when the primacy of a criminal action will not apply is when there exists a prejudicial question. For a prejudicial question to arise, the previously instituted civil action must involve an issue similar or intimately related to the issue in the subsequent criminal action (Section 7, Rule 111).

It is imperative that the civil action is instituted ahead of the criminal action, otherwise, the motion to suspend the criminal proceedings on the grounds of a prejudicial question will be denied by the court outright for being a non-meritorious or prohibited motion (Section 2, OCA Circular No. 101-2017).

The motion to suspend may be filed in the Office of the Prosecutor conducting preliminary investigation. If the criminal action is pending in court, the motion to suspend shall be filed in the criminal action before the prosecution rests (Section 6, Rule 111).

Furthermore, it is required that “the issue in the civil action would be determinative of the guilt or innocence of the accused in the criminal case. To determine if this is so, “reference is made to the elements of the crime charged” (Tranquil Salvador III, Criminal Procedure citing Reyes v. Rossi, G.R. No. 159823, 15 February 2013).

In one case, the Supreme Court found good reason to suspend the criminal action for estafa in view of the pendency of an intra-corporate case which had to determine the authority of the officer issuing the demand letter (People v. Arambulo, G.R. No. 186597, 17 July 2015).

In another case, the criminal action was suspended to allow the court in the civil action to determine the validity of the demand letter. This is because if the demand coming from the corporation is defective, it will be as if no demand was ever made, hence the prosecution for estafa will not prosper (People v. Arambulo, G.R. No. 186597, 17 July 2015 citing Omictin v. Court of Appeals).

In Pulido v. People, the Supreme Court declared that the validity of the second marriage is a prejudicial question to the criminal prosecution in bigamy. Its validity cannot be determined in the criminal case; hence, it is essential that a decision on the status of said marriage be first secured in a civil action (G.R. No. 220149, 27 July 2021).

Vindicating one’s right is constitutionally guaranteed.

However, it does not give anyone the unbridled license to criminally prosecute another without legal and factual bases.

Otherwise, if proven to be deliberate and motivated by malice and bad faith, the complainant may be held liable for malicious prosecution.

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Tranquil G.S. Salvador III
  • Tranquil G.S. Salvador III