Everyone present in the Dominican Republic is subject to the criminal laws of the country, which are governed primarily by the Constitution, the Penal Code, and the Code of Penal Procedure.
Right to Life
Article 37 of the Constitution establishes the right to life as inviolable from conception until death, and expressly prohibits the death penalty.
Article 39 prohibits discrimination under the law on the basis of gender, skin color, age, disability, national origin, family ties, language, religion, political or philosophical opinions, or social or personal conditions.
Right to Freedom and Personal Security
Under Article 40 of the Constitution, a person may be arrested or detained only by a judge’s written order unless the person is caught in the act of committing a crime. At the time of arrest, the arresting authority must identify him or herself, and inform the person of his or her rights. Once detained, the person is entitled to contact a family member, an attorney, or other trusted person, who may request information about the location of the person arrested and the grounds for the arrest. The arrested person must be brought before a judge within 48 hours of arrest and either be charged or released. The person can demand release through a habeas corpus hearing if there are no grounds for the arrest, or legal formalities were not followed.
Right against Illegal Search and Seizure
Article 44 of the Constitution establishes a person’s right to privacy, and the government’s obligation to obtain a search warrant from a judge before enterinig a person’s private premises. The government is also required to obtain a a court order to collect a person’s private documents and communications.
Under Article 69 of the Constitution, the accused has the right to a timely, public, adversarial, and impartial trial. No one can be tried twice for the same criminal act, or be forced to testify against him or herself. Everyone is presumed innocent until judged guilty and all opportunities for appeal have been exhausted. Illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible and only laws predating the criminal act may be applied. Sentences cannot be increased on appeal if only the convicted person requested the appeal.
Right to an Attorney
A detained person is entitled to an attorney during any questioning, and has the right to remain silent. If the person cannot afford an attorney, or for any reason does not have one, the court will appoint an attorney from the Public Defender’s Office, which provides free legal representation, and ensures that the accused receives a fair trial (Article 176 of the Constitution).
Filing a Complaint
The Dominican Republic has an adversarial legal system in which the judge is an impartial referee between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The victim of a crime, the police, a private citizen, or the District Attorney’s Office (DA’s Office) (Ministerio Público) may bring charges against someone for an alleged crime by filing a complaint with the DA’s Office. This Office is an autonomous, self-governing agency comprising the Attorney General, appointed by the President of the Dominican Republic, several deputies, half of which are also appointed by the President, and other prosecuting attorneys located around the country (Articles 171 and 172 of the Constitution). The Office is charged with protecting society against crime, and conducts criminal investigations, prosecutes criminal cases and regulates the prison system (Articles 169 and 170).
When a complaint is filed, the DA’s Office opens an investigation, and determines the validity of the complaint. If the DA’s Office deems the complaint to be valid, the facts are sent to an investigating judge (juez de la instrucción), who will decide, based on the evidence available, whether the detained person will remain in police custody or will be released while investigation of the charges continues. The rule is that the detained person be released unless he or she presents a flight risk. The burden is on the DA’s Office to justify taking coercive measures (medidas de coerción) against the accused, such as imprisonment, house arrest, mandatory reporting to the DA’s Office, passport confiscation, or bail requirements. Any restriction to a person’s liberty must be exceptional, proportional to the danger presented (Article 40.9 of the Constitution), and cannot exceed one year.
At the preliminary hearing, the investigating judge will evaluate the gravity of the crime and sufficiency of the evidence against the accused and decide either that (i) there is insufficient evidence and order the accused be released (auto de no ha lugar) and the case closed, which can be appealed by the prosecutor, or (ii) the evidence is sufficient to indict the accused and therefore order the case to go to trial (providencia calificativa). The case will be heard by either a sole judge or a panel of judges based on the gravity of the offense. There is no trial by jury.
A Court of First Instance (Juzgado de Primera Instancia) hears the case on its merits, and the presiding judge questions the accused to ascertain if the testimony conforms to the facts contained in the documents presented for trial. At this time, both the prosecutor and defense attorney question the accused. The defense attorney may also call witnesses and present arguments on behalf of the accused. The accused has the right to remain silent during questioning. Finally, the prosecutor presents a closing argument. After hearing all the evidence and arguments, the presiding judge renders a verdict of guilty or innocent, and sets the sentence.
The verdict may be appealed to a Court of Appeals (Corte de Apelación) within ten days of the Court of First Instance’s decision. An appellate court may only review matters of law, and its decision may be further appealed to the Supreme Court, which also rules only on the correct application of law. If the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court decides that the law was incorrectly applied, the case is sent down to a different Court of First Instance for a retrial.