Prejudicial Question

More often that not, we hear the term prejudicial question being raised by a party in the course of a criminal litigation proceeding. For defense lawyers, it is an effective tool for stalling the preliminary investigation or prosecution of a case, most especially in cases where their client is certain to be charged or convicted criminally. More than a delaying tactic, however, the existence of prejudicial question is a serious and fundamental issue that needs to be resolved in order to fully satisfy the requirements of due process and elementary fairness.

The term “prejudicial question” is found in Section 6, Rule 111 of the 2000 Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, which states that:

“A petition for suspension of the criminal action based upon the pendency of a prejudicial question in a civil action may be filed in the office of the prosecutor or the court conducting the preliminary investigation. When the criminal action has been filed in court for trial, the petition to suspend shall be filed in the same criminal action at any time before the prosecution rests.”

As can be gleaned from above, a petition for suspension of the criminal action based on the existence of prejudicial question may be raised either during the preliminary investigation stage before the prosecutor conducting the same or during the pendency of a criminal trial where it is filed before the court hearing the case.

Jurisprudence has also defined a prejudicial question as that which arises in a case the resolution of which is a logical antecedent of the issue involved therein, and the cognizance of which pertains to another tribunal. The prejudicial question must be determinative of the case before the court but the jurisdiction to try and resolve the question must be lodged in another court or tribunal. It is a question based on a fact distinct and separate from the crime but so intimately connected with it that it determines the guilt or innocence of the accused. (See Rojas vs. People, 57 SCRA 246; People vs. Aragon, 94 Phil. 357; Zapanta vs. Montessa, 4 SCRA 510 and Benitez vs. Concepcion, 2 SCRA 178)

The elements of a prejudicial questions are enumerated under Section 7, Rule 111 of the 2000 Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, these are: (a) the previously instituted civil action involves an issue similar or intimately related to the issue raised in the subsequent criminal action, and (b) the resolution of such issue  determines whether or not the criminal action may proceed. 

If both civil and criminal cases have similar issues or the issue in one is intimately related to the issues raised in the other, then a prejudicial question would likely exist, provided the other element or characteristic is satisfied. For example, in a criminal case for bigamy, the accused may raise the pendency of a civil suit for the declaration of nullity of his first marriage to defer the proceedings of the bigamy case.

Mere similarity of issues does not suffice to uphold the validity of a prejudical question. It must appear not only that the civil case involves the same facts upon which the criminal prosecution would be based, but also that the resolution of the issues raised in the civil action would be necessarily determinative of the guilt or innocence of the accused. If the resolution of the issue in the civil action will not determine the criminal responsibility of the accused in the criminal action based on the same facts, or there is no necessity _that the civil case be determined first before taking up the criminal case,_ therefore, the civil case does not involve a prejudicial question. Neither is there a prejudicial question if the civil and the criminal action can, according to law, proceed independently of each other.

It must be remebered however, that a prejudicial question does not conclusively resolve the guilt or innocence of the accused but simply tests the sufficiency of the allegations in the information in order to sustain the further prosecution of the criminal case. A party who raises a prejudicial question is deemed to have hypothetically admitted that all the essential elements of a crime have been adequately alleged in the information, considering that the prosecution has not yet presented a single evidence on the indictment or may not yet have rested its case. A challenge of the allegations in the information on the ground of prejudicial question is in effect a question on the merits of the criminal charge through a non-criminal suit.