Media Missed the Point: Quasi-judicial Powers for Police
PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte on March 1 signed Republic Act 10973, giving subpoena powers to the police. It amended the Philippine National Police (PNP) law, allowing the PNP chief, as well the director and the deputy director for administration of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), to issue a subpoena and subpoena duces tecum. This means the police can require a person to attend or testify in any investigation, and to turn over to the police documents considered relevant to the case.
The news came as a surprise, but the grant of subpoena powers went through the process. However, only three news organizations picked up on the significance of the initiative.
The media reported on it in January 2017, but failed to follow up on the story as it went through the legislative mill. On January 30, 2017, GMA News Online reported the bill had passed through third reading in the Senate (“Senate OKs bill allowing select PNP officials to issue subpoenas”).
Senator Panfilo Lacson, who authored the bill, said the police used to have these powers, but lost these when the Philippine Constabulary and the Integrated National Police (PC-INP) were merged under Republic Act 6975.
“It seems absurd that the Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU), now known as the CIDG, with a mandate to undertake monitoring, investigation and prosecution of all crimes of such magnitude and extent as to indicate their commission by highly-placed or professional syndicates and organization, has lost its subpoena powers,” Lacson said in his sponsorship speech.
His claims were echoed in House Bill No. 4863, filed by Surigao del Norte first district Representative Francisco Jose Matugas II in January 2017 (“House OKs bill restoring PNP CIDG’s power to issue subpoena“). Only InterAksyon reported on the concerns of Bayan Muna party-list Representative Carlos Zarate, that these powers were prone to abuse (“Lawmaker worried subpoena powers for CIDG prone to abuse”).
Even Zarate was surprised when the news came out that the bill had been signed into law. “I thought natutulog pa sa Senate, pagdedebatehan,” he told CMFR. Since the House and Senate versions of the bill were basically the same, Zarate said there was no need to form a bicameral committee and so once the Senate passed their version of the bill, it went straight to Malacañang, where it was unceremoniously signed into law.
It was after the bill had become a law, and debate was futile, that articles came out explaining the significance of the grant of such powers to the police.
On March 11 Rappler published an in-depth article explaining, putting side by side, the claims of Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque with the concerns of human rights lawyers. In that article, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) lawyer Edre Olalia explained that with RA 10973, Duterte might have given policemen a shortcut, and actually expanded their search powers. If persons served with a subpoena refuse or do not cooperate, they could be charged with indirect contempt, which is punishable by fine or imprisonment (“Why PNP’s new subpoena powers threaten our rights”).
“A subpoena power is a quasi-judicial power. The police agency unit’s mandate is an exercise of discretion. With the subpoena powers, you’re giving him the power to judge. That’s a violation of the essence of police enforcement,” Olalia said in the same Rappler report.
Zarate, in an InterAksyon story, said “the newly-enacted law gives the PNP-CIDG Marcosian era-like subpoena powers while it refuses to become fully transparent and accountable for the government’s bloody war on drugs” (“WHILE WE WERE SLEEPING | Law on PNP, CIDG subpoena powers slipped through Congress”).
Reporters watching the legislative process clearly missed the significance of the law. This may be due to the lack of appreciation for the historical context of the laws on police powers, from the Marcos period to the present, and the dependence only on the perspective of those sponsoring the bills.
Mainstream media was notably silent on this law in the making and did not seem to be conscious about the implications of expanding police powers with controversy weighing heavily on police operations in the conduct of the drug war. Only with the passage of the law did the media give the issue the time and space it deserved.