Published 6 April 2020, The Daily Tribune

Most government and private offices find themselves turning to video call or conference applications for meeting purposes during this enhanced community quarantine period. Even the prosecutor’s offices are joining the bandwagon. Recognizing that law enforcement does not stop even with a Metro Manila lockdown, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has recently allowed the conduct of electronic inquest (e-inquest) proceedings which can be done via video call or conference.

The DOJ (through the Office of the Prosecutor General) issued an office order dated 27 March 2020 allowing the conduct of e-inquest, which is defined as “the virtual conduct of inquest proceeding using any online platform for video calls and conferences and all available electronic communications. It is paperless and does not require physical presence of parties in the same area.”

Inquest is a summary proceeding conducted by a prosecutor, called the inquest prosecutor, for the purpose of determining whether a warrantless arrest was validly made. In other words, inquest is conducted when a person is arrested without an arrest warrant, either because said person was caught committing a crime, has just committed a crime, or has escaped from detention. What happens in an inquest proceeding is that after a person is arrested, he is brought before an inquest prosecutor. Said person, now called a respondent, may get his own lawyer, or he can be assisted by a public lawyer. The inquest prosecutor will receive the police’s affidavit of arrest and affidavits of witnesses, if any. If the inquest prosecutor determines that the arrest was invalid, he will recommend the release of the respondent. If the prosecutor finds that the warrantless arrest was valid, he would ask the respondent whether he would want to avail himself of his right to a preliminary investigation, or the prosecutor can resolve the complaint based on the available evidence.

Under the DOJ office order, the police, or law enforcement authorities (LEA), shall coordinate with the appropriate prosecutor’s office prior to filing the complaint for the conduct of e-inquest. The prosecutor’s office shall then provide the LEA with the contact details of a point person whom the LEA will coordinate with.

The point person shall then instruct the LEA to email the required scanned documents, i.e., investigation data sheet, referral letter, complaint affidavits, etc., in PDF format. Upon receipt of those required document, the prosecutor’s office will assign an inquest prosecutor who will conduct the e-inquest.

Thereafter, the point person shall initiate the online video call or conference among the LEA, inquest prosecutor, the respondent’s counsel and the private complainant (if applicable). Once connected, the inquest prosecutor shall conduct the e-inquest following the usual procedure and practice. Note that in inquest proceedings, the police officers, the witnesses and the respondent are required to take an oath or affirmation. But under the DOJ office order, the oath or affirmation done online suffices, without prejudice to the subsequent personal taking of said oath or affirmation.

Upon termination of the e-inquest, the investigating prosecutor shall prepare the draft inquest resolution and/or information with his electronic signature, and shall email it to the inquest chief or head of division, who shall recommend its approval directly to the city prosecutor, or another prosecutor with approving authority. Once approved, the resolution and/or information will be forwarded to the point person who shall either file the information in court in accordance with the Supreme Court’s Administrative Order 32-2020 (in case of filing), or email the approved inquest resolution and release order to the LEA, respondent, and his counsel (in case of dismissal or Release for Further Investigation).

The DOJ office order clarified that the conduct of e-inquest is only an alternative to the conduct of the standard inquest proceedings and is optional for the prosecutor’s offices which may craft their own specific guidelines similar to and consistent with the procedures provided under the DOJ office order.

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