Friday, April 17, 2009

Obstruction of justice

The Philippine version of the anti-obstruction of justice law is Presidential Decree No. 1829 (1981), entitled “Penalizing the Obstruction of Apprehension and Prosecution of Criminal Offenders”.

On the premise that crime and violence continue to proliferate despite the sustained vigorous efforts of the government to effectively contain them and that to discourage public indifference or apathy towards the apprehension and prosecution of criminal offenders, the law thought it necessary to penalize acts which obstruct or frustrate or tend to obstruct or frustrate the successful apprehension and prosecution of criminal offenders.

Under Sec. 1 of the decree, the penalty of prision correccional in its maximum period, or a fine ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 pesos, or both, shall be imposed “upon any person who knowingly or willfully obstructs, impedes, frustrates or delays the apprehension of suspects and the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases” by committing any of the following acts:

(a) preventing witnesses from testifying in any criminal proceeding or from reporting the commission of any offense or the identity of any offender/s by means of bribery, misrepresentation, deceit, intimidation, force or threats;

(b) altering, destroying, suppressing or concealing any paper, record, document, or object, with intent to impair its verity, authenticity, legibility, availability, or admissibility as evidence in any investigation of or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or to be used in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(c) harboring or concealing, or facilitating the escape of, any person he knows, or has reasonable ground to believe or suspect, has committed any offense under existing penal laws in order to prevent his arrest prosecution and conviction;

(d) publicly using a fictitious name for the purpose of concealing a crime, evading prosecution or the execution of a judgment, or concealing his true name and other personal circumstances for the same purpose or purposes;

(e) delaying the prosecution of criminal cases by obstructing the service of process or court orders or disturbing proceedings in the fiscal's offices, in Tanodbayan, or in the courts;

(f) making, presenting or using any record, document, paper or object with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(g) soliciting, accepting, or agreeing to accept any benefit in consideration of abstaining from, discounting, or impeding the prosecution of a criminal offender;

(h) threatening directly or indirectly another with the infliction of any wrong upon his person, honor or property or that of any immediate member or members of his family in order to prevent such person from appearing in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or imposing a condition, whether lawful or unlawful, in order to prevent a person from appearing in the investigation of or in official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(i) giving of false or fabricated information to mislead or prevent the law enforcement agencies from apprehending the offender or from protecting the life or property of the victim; or fabricating information from the data gathered in confidence by investigating authorities for purposes of background information and not for publication and publishing or disseminating the same to mislead the investigator or to the court.

If any of the acts mentioned above is penalized by any other law with a higher penalty, the higher penalty shall be imposed. If any of the foregoing acts is committed by a public official or employee, he shall in addition to the penalties provided thereunder, suffer perpetual disqualification from holding public office.

It is unfortunate that the prevailing (erroneous) belief among Filipino policemen is that since the offense of obstruction of justice is allegedly a “continuing offense”, they may arrest persons whom they suspect to be guilty of the said offense at any time even without a warrant of arrest issued by the courts.

In the case of ROGER POSADAS, et. al. vs. OMBUDSMAN, et. al., G.R. No. 131492. September 29, 2000, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the constitutional rights of Filipino citizens over attempts by law enforcers to harass the lawyers and officials of the University of the Philippines (UP) whose only fault was to defend and protect the basic right of two of their college students (who were suspects in a fraternity-related death of a UP student) to be free from any form of search and seizure without valid warrants of arrest issued by the courts for the purpose. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) retaliated against the UP lawyers and officials by filing a criminal complaint against them for alleged violation of P.D. No. 1829.

Two issues were raised in the aforecited case, to wit: (1) Whether the attempted arrest of the student suspects by the NBI could be validly made without a warrant; and (2) Whether there was probable cause for prosecuting petitioners for violation of P.D. No. 1829.

The Supreme Court answered the questions in the negative.

Pursuant to Art. III, §2 of the Constitution, “no arrest may be made except by virtue of a warrant issued by a judge after examining the complainant and the witnesses he may produce and after finding probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed the crime”.

The exceptions when an arrest may be made even without a warrant are provided in Rule 113, §5 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure, thus:

(a) When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;

(b) When an offense has in fact just been committed, and he has personal knowledge of the facts indicating that the person to be arrested has committed it;

(c) When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment or place where he is serving final judgment or temporarily confined while his case is pending, or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another.

The arresting officers in this case did not witness the crime being committed. Neither were the students fugitives from justice nor prisoners who had escaped from confinement. The question was whether paragraph (b) applies because a crime had just been committed and the NBI agents had personal knowledge of facts indicating that the two students Narag and Taparan were probably guilty.

The NBI contended that a peace officer may, without a warrant, arrest a person "when an offense has in fact just been committed and he has personal knowledge of facts indicating that the person to be arrested has committed it" and that a law enforcer “who had knowledge of facts gathered by him personally in the course of his investigation” may arrest a suspect without a warrant of arrest.

The Supreme Court however noted that in contrast, the NBI agents in the case at bar tried to arrest Narag and Taparan “four days after the commission of the crime”. They had “no personal knowledge of any fact” which might indicate that the two students were probably guilty of the crime. What they had were the “supposed positive identification of two alleged eyewitnesses, which is insufficient to justify the arrest without a warrant by the NBI”.

The Court took the occasion to explain what constitutes "personal knowledge" on the part of the arresting officers, thus:

"’Personal knowledge’ of facts in arrests without a warrant under Section 5 (b) of Rule 113 must be based upon "probable cause" which means an "actual belief or reasonable grounds of suspicion." The grounds of suspicion are reasonable when, in the absence of actual belief of the arresting officers, the suspicion that the person to be arrested is probably guilty of committing the offense is based on actual facts, i.e., supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves to create the probable cause of guilt of the person to be arrested. A reasonable suspicion therefore must be founded on probable cause, coupled with good faith on the part of the peace officers making the arrest.”

The Court noted that at the time the deceased UP student Dennis Venturina was killed in a fraternity-related incident, the NBI agents were nowhere near the scene of the crime. When the NBI agents attempted to arrest UP students Taparan and Narag, the latter were not committing a crime nor were they doing anything that would create the suspicion that they were doing anything illegal. On the contrary, Taparan and Narag, under the supervision of the U.P. police, were taking part in a peace talk called to put an end to fraternity-related violence on the campus.

The Court stressed that to allow the arrest which the NBI agents intended to make without warrant “would in effect allow them to supplant the courts”. The determination of the existence of probable cause that the persons to be arrested committed the crime was for the judge to make. The law authorizes a police officer or even an ordinary citizen to arrest criminal offenders only if the latter are “committing or have just committed a crime”. Otherwise, “we cannot leave to the police officers the determination of whom to apprehend if we are to protect our civil liberties”.

Art. III, §2 of the Constitution provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”

The question was not whether petitioners had reasonable grounds to believe that the suspects were guilty. The question was whether the student suspects could be arrested even in the absence of a warrant issued by a court, considering that, as already explained, the attempted arrest did not fall under any of the cases provided in Rule 113, §5. Regardless of their suspicion, petitioners could not very well have authorized the arrest without warrant of the students or even effected the arrest themselves. Only courts could decide the question of probable cause since the students were not being arrested in flagrante delicto.

The aforecited case was an occasion for the Court to reiterate the doctrine that although as a rule a criminal prosecution may not be restrained or enjoined either through a preliminary or final injunction or a writ of prohibition and that ordinarily the Court does not interfere with the discretion of the Ombudsman or the Department of Justice to determine whether there exists reasonable ground to believe that a crime has been committed and that the accused is probably guilty thereof and, thereafter, to file the corresponding information with the appropriate courts, there are, however, settled exceptions to this rule, to wit:

a. To afford protection to the constitutional rights of the accused (Hernandez vs. Albano, et al. L-19272, January 25, 1967, 19 SCRA 95);

b. When necessary for the orderly administration of justice or to avoid oppression or multiplicity of actions (Dimayuga, et al. vs. Fernandez, 43 Phil. 304; Hernandez vs. Albano, supra; Fortun vs. Labang, et al., L-38383, May 27, 1981, 104 SCRA 607);

c. When there is a prejudicial question which is sub judice (De Leon vs. Mabanag, 70 Phil. 202);

d. When the acts of the officer are without or in excess of authority (Planas vs. Gil, 67 Phil. 62);

e. Where the prosecution is under an invalid law, ordinance or regulation (Young vs. Rafferty, 33 Phil. 556; Yu Cong Eng vs. Trinidad, 47 Phil. 385, 389);

f. When double jeopardy is clearly apparent (Sangalang vs. People and Alvendia, 109 Phil. 1140);

g. Where the court has no jurisdiction over the offense (Lopez vs. City Judge, L-25795, October 29, 1966, 18 SCRA 616);

h. Where it is a case of persecution rather than prosecution (Rustia vs. Ocampo, CA-G.R. No. 4760, March 25, 1960);

i. Where the charges are manifestly false and motivated by the lust for vengeance (Recto vs. Castelo, 18 L.J. (1953), cited in Rañoa vs. Alvendia, CA G.R. No. 30720-R, October 8, 1962; Cf. Guingona, et al. vs. City Fiscal, L-60033, April 4, 1984, 128 SCRA 577);

j. Where there is clearly no prima facie case against the accused and a motion to quash on that ground has been denied (Salonga vs. Paño, et al., L-59524, February 18, 1985, 134 SCRA 438); and

k. Preliminary injunction has been issued by the Supreme Court to prevent the threatened unlawful arrest of petitioners (Rodriguez vs. Castelo, L- 6374, August 1, 1953) cited in Regalado, Remedial Law Compendium, p. 188, 1988 Ed.)

The Court added that, whether or not petitioner Posadas surrendered the student suspects to the NBI agents the following day is immaterial. In the first place, the petitioners were not sureties or bondsmen who could be held to their undertaking. In the second place, the fact remains that the NBI agents could not have validly arrested Taparan and Narag at the U.P. Police Station as they did not have a warrant at that time. Hence, only the NBI agents themselves could be faulted for their inability to arrest Taparan and Narag. If the NBI believed the information given to them by the supposed eyewitnesses, the NBI should have applied for a warrant before making the attempted arrest instead of taking the law into their own hands. That they chose not to and were prevented from making an arrest for lack of a warrant is their responsibility alone. Petitioners could not be held accountable therefor.

Notwithstanding the highly publicized death of UP student Dennis Venturina and the pressures faced by law enforcement agencies to effect immediate arrests and produce results without unnecessary delay, the Court nonetheless stressed that the need to enforce the law cannot be justified by sacrificing constitutional rights. The petitioners cannot be indicted because they dared to uphold the rights of the students. Hence, the Court saw no other recourse but to enjoin the Sandiganbayan and the Ombudsman from proceeding with the case against petitioners.