Presumed guilty until you settle

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

One week ago, a drunk motorcycle rider, driving without a helmet, drove up and counterflowed on the Balintawak Skyway off ramp, slammed into an oncoming vehicle and was killed. It seemed like an “open and shut case” of reckless driving on the part of the dead rider.

Or so we thought. But it is apparently now the standard operating procedure of the PNP that in an accident involving a motorcycle rider versus a private vehicle, Grab, cab, etc., the private vehicle driver is generally presumed guilty of or could face a charge of “reckless imprudence” until he/she reaches a settlement with the motorcycle rider.

The assumption that just because you are the bigger vehicle makes you guilty is ridiculous! Passing the burden of guilt just because you have a private car or company vehicle that is “probably” insured is a perversion of justice and fair play. We are also incentivizing Kamote Riders to be reckless drivers.

Judging solely on the number of related news reports, there are more charges of “reckless imprudence” in the Philippines than jaywalking or littering. Is it official policy of the Philippine National Police to charge drivers involved in serious accidents with reckless imprudence even if they are the victim or the one hit or rammed? Is the law on the matter so vague that it is subject to gross misinterpretation and abuse?

In the case of the dead rider that counter-flowed on the Balintawak off-ramp, the driver of the SUV had the right of way, was rammed but was the one charged and detained for 24 hours or more, and only released after the Prosecutor’s office issued a release order the next day, citing lack of material witness or evidence.

In the news, an officer of the PNP Highway Patrol was quoted as saying that aside from the release order, the SUV driver was also released since a settlement had been reached at the police sub-station and the driver had promised to give financial assistance to the family of the dead rider.

Since when has it become the job of the PNP to facilitate settlements inside their premises? Go figure – that the drunk driver destroyed the front of the SUV and the owner of the SUV has to pay the rider’s family. I don’t know if the police officer was just pointing out that they managed to help work out a settlement and score PR points via media but too much attention is given to accidents and none to the mishandling of such cases.

An innocent driver is charged with reckless imprudence and is detained 24 hours, enters into a settlement inside a police precinct which some lawyers consider under duress. Did he have legal counsel? Was he advised of his legal rights upon entering the police precinct? What about the officer that filed the defective charge based on the city prosecutor’s dismissal? Is the PNP Internal Affairs investigating this?

The fact that the QC Prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges for lack of evidence or witnesses speaks volumes against the automatic filing of reckless imprudence charges. Lucky for the SUV driver that he knew the law or had a good lawyer, or he would have been detained longer until his relatives managed to settle with the victim’s family.

The fact that the actual victims are “pressured into a settlement” before release instead of implored to be compassionate already shows how twisted and legalistic things have become. What’s to stop con artists and scammers intentionally getting into a collision and faking injury or worse?

Three days after that incident in Balintawak, a driver of an OFW taxi, shared how a bike rider side-swiped his taxi, fell and had a bone fracture. At the police precinct, he was advised by the traffic investigator to settle amicably or go through the hassle of being charged with “reckless imprudence resulting in injury,” spend money on a lawyer and have a “record.”

The taxi driver followed the policeman’s advice and ended up spending more than he bargained for. He had to pay for the initial treatment, follow-up visits, doctor’s fee as well as compensate the rider for days of no work. “Ako na binangga, ako pa taya.”

These are just samples of nightmares experienced by innocent drivers because the PNP automatically slaps drivers with a charge of reckless imprudence. The question is, whatever happened to those thousands of charges? Are they ever entered into the records of the PNP for auditing as basis for performance review? Are these charges or records forwarded to the PNP Legal Division or Internal Affairs department to monitor if law enforcement is correct, efficient and effective based on year-on-year comparisons?

Are they simply recorded in precinct blotters as traffic accidents and charges dropped because there was a settlement and less paper work? Or never actually entered or recorded anywhere, not even on toilet paper. Or is it part of “accomplishment reports” used by cops for their promotions?

In a country where a police or an NBI clearance is constantly required, many Filipinos end up “having a record” even for a mere traffic violation or even after the matter has been settled or cleared. Should traffic violations be entered as a “record” or “derogatory mark” in police or NBI records?

Although Congress may be on vacation, I pray that our few friends in the H.O.R and the PNP would really investigate the matter because the misinterpretation of the law, the wrong application of the law, also raises the question: is the law on reckless imprudence related to traffic accidents imperfect or being used to enhance performance records for promotion purposes by cops?

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