Effecting change through collaboration

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This article is written by Barbara Mae P. Flores, deputy regional director at the Regional Prosecution Office XI, under the Philippine Department of Justice. Flores is also a 2020 WePROTECT Global Alliance Fellow, a global programme to end exploitation of children, hosted in partnership with Apolitical.

This article was originally published on Apolitical.

Collaboration between prosecutors and law enforcers prior to trial is not very common in the Philippines.

The primary reason is that prosecutors are tasked with determining whether or not a criminal case has enough probable cause to proceed to trial. Simply put, the prosecutor has the power to either dismiss a case filed by law enforcers, or to send the case to court. Hence, as a general policy, prosecutors are not allowed to involve themselves in the early phases of an investigation to preserve their impartiality.

Fortunately, policymakers and administrators in the Philippine Department of Justice recognise the value of a police-prosecutor collaboration. For instance, one advantage is that it leads to higher quality evidence, resulting in a high rate of conviction. For this reason, the Department is slowly making some policy changes to make collaboration possible.

The value of collaboration

One such policy is the creation of anti human trafficking task forces in almost all regions in the country. As a policy change, members of these task forces are authorised to collaborate with law enforcers to gather evidence prior to trial.

As a pioneer member of our regional task force created in 2011, I was able to participate in several case build-up investigations involving human trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), and have first-hand experience on how police-prosecutor collaboration can significantly improve our current criminal justice system.

Our early involvement as prosecutors is generally welcomed by law enforcers since they appreciate our guidance on legal issues. There are times, however, when I can sense their frustration when we ask them to gather more evidence than they have previously been used to. Under normal circumstances, law enforcers would only ensure that they have enough evidence to determine probable cause as their performance is largely measured based on the number of cases that proceeded to trial.

Every time there is a conviction, we always acknowledge the contribution of the law enforcers in the successful prosecution so they will have a sense of ownership over the case. Now they are more receptive and, in fact, eager to work with us

On the other hand, as prosecutors, we would like to ensure that before a case is brought before the prosecution office, we have sufficient evidence to get a conviction.

Nonetheless, the law enforcers we have worked with have eventually come to value the collaboration because, so far, the cases we have worked on together resulted in approximately two hundred counts of criminal cases filed in court (an accomplishment for them), and most of the decided cases also resulted in a conviction. Every time there is a conviction, we always acknowledge the contribution of the law enforcers in the successful prosecution so they will have a sense of ownership over the case. Now they are more receptive and, in fact, eager to work with us.

Recently, I have also immersed myself in how OSEC investigations and entrapments operations are conducted by law enforcers. An entrapment operation is a legal strategy used by law enforcers to be able to apprehend a perpetrator while he/she is committing, about to, or has just committed a crime. In handling OSEC case build-up investigations, I usually collaborate with a specialised anti human trafficking law enforcers unit. In our first OSEC case together, my participation was very limited. I only came into the picture after the entrapment operation and was merely requested to go over the affidavits they prepared and the list of evidence they will submit.

When the case proceeded to trial, the case was assigned to me and I found it difficult to visualise what had happened during the entrapment operation. As trial prosecutor, it is important that you can clearly convey to the judge how the case unfolded so it is vital that the trial prosecutor had a clear understanding of how the case panned out.

Hence, in their succeeding entrapment operations, I asked to be involved right at the get-go. So I was with them before, during, and after the entrapment operations. The experience not only allowed me to be able to fully understand the intricacies of the operations and prepare me for trial, it also led to a lot of realisations. I realised and even experienced the kind of pressure law enforcers are subjected to during operations. I also realised how unforeseen events sometimes derail a well-planned and well-thought operation. I realised that the number of hours law enforcers are given to file inquest cases (ie. the cases brought about by entrapment operations) might not be sufficient and needed to be reassessed. I also realised the importance of providing legal inputs during actual operations.

Responding to unforeseen challenges with creativity

In one entrapment operation I was involved with, there was already a planned date and time for the supposed live “pornographic show” involving a 14 year old girl.

However, on the day the show was supposed to take place (when all of us were already at our assigned vehicles and positions), the perpetrator suddenly informed the undercover agent that something came up and offered to do the show the week after. Most of the people involved in the operation travelled a great distance to conduct the operation and the investigation started months before that. Going back empty handed was not an option, and staying put and waiting another week to conclude the operation was not a very viable option considering the additional expense it would entail.

This experience reinforced just how valuable a police-prosecutor collaboration is to be able to come up with solid cases and how it could actually be beneficial for both sides

So we (the investigators and prosecutors present) brainstormed on how we could still legally do the arrest even if the supposed live show did not push through. During entrapment operations, the arrest is usually done immediately after the perpetrator offers to start the show without actually waiting for the “pornographic show” to commence to prevent further exploitation of the child. But in this case, the most recent offer to do a child pornographic show made by the perpetrator was the day before. After re-evaluating the situation, we were able to come up with strategies and legal arguments to validly continue with the arrest. Thereafter, we also assisted the law enforcers in preparing documents, making sure to answer whatever legal issues that may arise.

The case proceeded to trial and eventually resulted in the suspect pleading guilty to three counts of various crimes (human trafficking, child pornography, and child abuse) and being sentenced to more than 20 years imprisonment. This experience reinforced just how valuable a police-prosecutor collaboration is to be able to come up with solid cases and how it could actually be beneficial for both sides.

Personally, I am convinced that there is a need to change our system to be more efficient and relevant. One way of moving forward is to come up with data driven and evidence-based research showing that a change in the system would result in a more effective dispensation of justice and would eventually be more cost-efficient for the government. I may not have the technical know-how to accomplish such a task, but I look forward to collaborating with research experts to advocate for change in our criminal justice system. — Barbara Mae P. Flores

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WeProtect Global Alliance or any of its members.

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