Dominican Republic Table of Contents
The Dominican criminal justice system was basically an inquisitorial arrangement in which a court and its staff took general charge of a criminal case, and the judge gathered evidence to supplement that produced by the prosecution and the defense. Evidence was largely committed to writing, and the final stage of the proceedings consisted of the judge's examining all the combined written material and then deciding whether or not he was convinced, beyond doubt, of the guilt of the accused. The nation's criminal courts did not, therefore, operate under a system of trial by jury.
The 1966 Constitution guarantees several basic legal rights to all citizens. These include the rights to due process, to public trial, and to habeas corpus protection. An accused person is also guaranteed protection against double jeopardy and selfincrimination . A written order from a competent judicial authority is required, if any person is to be detained more than forty-eight hours or if an individual's home or property is to be searched. In practice, the police and other officials generally honored these guarantees during the 1980s.
In addition to the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitution establishes four basic types of courts: courts of appeal, the Lands Tribunal, courts of first instance, and justice of the peace courts. Criminal cases were tried in all courts except the Lands Tribunal. There were also a few special courts that heard criminal cases, including one for minors. Most misdemeanor offenses were tried by the justice of the peace courts, of which there were about 100, in 1989, one in each municipality or township. The courts of first instance had original jurisdiction for criminal felony cases. There were twenty-nine of these, one for each province. Decisions could be, and regularly were, appealed to one of the nation's seven courts of appeal. These courts also had original jurisdiction over cases against judges of courts of first instance, government attorneys, provincial governors, and other specified officials.
The Supreme Court served as the nation's ultimate court of appeal. It exercised original jurisdiction in cases involving the president, the vice president, members of the cabinet and Congress, and judges and prosecutors of the higher courts (see The Judiciary , ch. 4). The court consisted of nine members, one of whom was designated president of the Supreme Court. The court also administered all of the nation's lower courts. The attorney general, who had the same rank as the president of the Supreme Court, represented the government's case and oversaw the system of government prosecutors. An accused person was entitled to be represented by an attorney. Indigent persons under accusation generally were provided free counsel in felony cases.
Although the judiciary was organizationally a separate branch of government, several observers have noted that the constitutional provisions governing the appointment and the tenure of judges in practice undermined judicial independence. All judges, from the Supreme Court to the justice of the peace courts, were appointed by the Senate, and they served four-year terms concurrent with the terms of elected officials. This system effectively made a judge's continued service subject to the approval of the dominant party in the Senate. Critics both inside and outside the government asserted that this arrangement subjected judges to undue political influence. This method of appointment and replacement also frequently resulted in a wholesale turnover of judicial personnel, especially when control of the Senate changed hands. Such turnovers affected the consistency of the judiciary's application and interpretation of the law.
The Constitution requires all judges to have law degrees, and judges at each level of the judiciary are required to have practiced law for a specified number of years. Supreme Court justices, for instance, must have a minimum of twelve years of experience, and judges of the courts of first instance are required to have two years of experience. Justices of the peace are also required to have a law degree; exceptions were permitted, however, in rural areas where it might be impossible to appoint a trained lawyer. Despite these requirements, during the mid-1980s the government admitted that the poor quality of some personnel, as well as corruption within the judiciary, affected public attitudes toward the justice system as a whole. In 1985 the president of the national bar association and the attorney general's office led a campaign against the low wages and the poor working conditions that, they claimed, greatly contributed to the poor quality of judges and to the practice, by some, of accepting money or preferential treatment in return for a favorable decision. The government responded to the campaign, which included cancelled hearings and demonstrations, by raising wages and by declaring its determination to rid the judiciary of corrupt judges.
One other factor that undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system was the prolonged delay before trial that characterized virtually every case. Preventive detention was legal, and it was commonly employed. A 1987 study revealed that over 85 percent of the nation's prison population was still awaiting trial. Many of these prisoners had been in jail for years.
Data as of December 1989
Dominican Republic Table of Contents