PHILIPPINE DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY (PDEA) VS. RICHARD BRODETT AND JORGE JOSEPH, G.R. No. 196390, September 28, 2011.
(The Lawyer's Post)
“x x x.
It is not open to question that in a criminal proceeding, the court having jurisdiction over the offense has the power to order upon conviction of an accused the seizure of (a) the instruments to commit the crime, including documents, papers, and other effects that are the necessary means to commit the crime; and (b) contraband, the ownership or possession of which is not permitted for being illegal. As justification for the first, the accused must not profit from his crime, or must not acquire property or the right to possession of property through his unlawful act.1 As justification for the second, to return to the convict from whom the contraband was taken, in one way or another,is not prudent or proper, because doing so will give rise to a violation of the law for possessing the contraband again.2 Indeed, the court having jurisdiction over the offense has the right to dispose of property used in the commission of the crime, such disposition being an accessory penalty to be imposed on the accused, unless the property belongs to a third person not liable for the offense that it was used as the instrument to commit.3
In case of forfeiture of property for crime, title and ownership of the convict are absolutely divested and shall pass to the Government.4 But it is required that the property to be forfeited must be before the court in such manner that it can be said to be within its jurisdiction.5
According to the Rules of Court, personal property may be seized in connection with a criminal offense either by authority of a search warrant or as the product of a search incidental to a lawful arrest. If the search is by virtue of a search warrant, the personal property that may be seized may be that which is the subject of the offense; or that which has been stolen or embezzled and other proceeds, or fruits of the offense; or that which has been used or intended to be used as the means of committing an offense.6 If the search is an incident of a lawful arrest, seizure may be made of dangerous weapons or anything that may have been used or may constitute proof in the commission of an offense.7 Should there be no ensuing criminal prosecution in which the personal property seized is used as evidence, its return to the person from whom it was taken, or to the person who is entitled to its possession is but a matter of course,8 except if it is contraband or illegal per se. A proper court may order the return of property held solely as evidence should the Government be unreasonably delayed in bringing a criminal prosecution.9 The order for the disposition of such property can be made only when the case is finally terminated.10
Generally, the trial court is vested with considerable legal discretion in the matter of disposing of property claimed as evidence,11 and this discretion extends even to the manner of proceeding in the event the accused claims the property was wrongfully taken from him.12 In particular, the trial court has the power to return property held as evidence to its rightful owners, whether the property was legally or illegally seized by the Government.13 Property used as evidence must be returned once the criminal proceedings to which it relates have terminated, unless it is then subject to forfeiture or other proceedings.14
Order of release was premature and made
in contravention of Section 20, R.A. No. 9165
It is undisputed that the ownership of the confiscated car belonged to Ms. Brodett, who was not charged either in connection with the illegal possession and sale of illegal drugs involving Brodett and Joseph that were the subject of the criminal proceedings in the RTC, or even in any other criminal proceedings.
In its decision under review, the CA held as follows:
A careful reading of the above provision shows that confiscation and forfeiture in drug-related cases pertains to “all the proceeds and properties derived from the unlawful act, including but not limited to, money and other assets obtained thereby, and the instruments or tools with which the particular unlawful act was committed unless they are the property of a third person not liable for the unlawful act.” Simply put, the law exempts from the effects of confiscation and forfeiture any property that is owned by a third person who is not liable for the unlawful act.
Here, it is beyond dispute that the Honda Accord subject of this petition is owned by and registered in the name of Myra S. Brodett, not accused Richard Brodett. Also, it does not appear from the records of the case that said Myra S. Brodett has been charged of any crime, more particularly, in the subject cases of possession and sale of dangerous drugs. Applying Section 20 of the law to the dispute at bar, We therefore see no cogent reason why the subject Honda Accord may not be exempted from confiscation and forfeiture.
Basic is the rule in statutory construction that when the law is clear and unambiguous, the court has no alternative but to apply the same according to its clear language. The Supreme Court had steadfastly adhered to the doctrine that the first and fundamental duty of courts is to apply the law according to its express terms, interpretation being called only when such literal application is impossible. No process of interpretation or construction need be resorted to where a provision of law peremptorily calls for application.
We thus cannot sustain petitioner’s submission that the subject car, being an instrument of the offense, may not be released to Ms. Brodett and should remain in custodia legis. The letters of the law are plain and unambiguous. Being so, there is no room for a contrary construction, especially so that the only purpose of judicial construction is to remove doubt and uncertainty, matters that are not obtaining here. More so that the required literal interpretation is not consistent with the Constitutional guarantee that a person may not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.15 (emphases are in the original text)
The legal provision applicable to the confiscation and forfeiture of the proceeds or instruments of the unlawful act, including the properties or proceeds derived from illegal trafficking of dangerous drugs and precursors and essential chemicals,is Section 20 of R.A. No. 9165, which pertinently provides as follows:
Section 20.Confiscation and Forfeiture of the Proceeds or Instruments of the Unlawful Act, Including the Properties or Proceeds Derived from the Illegal Trafficking of Dangerous Drugs and/or Precursors and Essential Chemicals. – Every penalty imposed for the unlawful importation, sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution, transportation or manufacture of any dangerous drug and/or controlled precursor and essential chemical, the cultivation or culture of plants which are sources of dangerous drugs, and the possession of any equipment, instrument, apparatus and other paraphernalia for dangerous drugs including other laboratory equipment, shall carry with it the confiscation and forfeiture, in favor of the government, of all the proceeds derived from unlawful act, including, but not limited to, money and other assets obtained thereby, and the instruments or tools with which the particular unlawful act was committed, unless they are the property of a third person not liable for the unlawful act, but those which are not of lawful commerce shall be ordered destroyed without delay pursuant to the provisions of Section 21 of this Act.
After conviction in the Regional Trial Court in the appropriate criminal case filed, the Court shall immediately schedule a hearing for the confiscation and forfeiture of all the proceeds of the offense and all the assets and properties of the accused either owned or held by him or in the name of some other persons if the same shall be found to be manifestly out of proportion to his/her lawful income: Provided, however, That if the forfeited property is a vehicle, the same shall be auctioned off not later than five (5) days upon order of confiscation or forfeiture.
During the pendency of the case in the Regional Trial Court, no property, or income derived therefrom, which may be confiscated and forfeited, shall be disposed, alienated or transferred and the same shall be in custodia legis and no bond shall be admitted for the release of the same.
The proceeds of any sale or disposition of any property confiscated or forfeited under this Section shall be used to pay all proper expenses incurred in the proceedings for the confiscation, forfeiture, custody and maintenance of the property pending disposition, as well as expenses for publication and court costs. The proceeds in excess of the above expenses shall accrue to the Board to be used in its campaign against illegal drugs.16
There is no question, for even PDEA has itself pointed out, that the text of Section 20 of R. A. No. 9165 relevant to the confiscation and forfeiture of the proceeds or instruments of the unlawful act is similar to that of Article 45 of the Revised Penal Code, which states:
Article 45.Confiscation and Forfeiture of the Proceeds or Instruments of the Crime. – Every penalty imposed for the commission of a felony shall carry with it the forfeiture of the proceeds of the crime and the instruments or tools with which it was committed.
Such proceeds and instruments or tools shall be confiscated and forfeited in favor of the Government, unless they be the property of a third person not liable for the offense, but those articles which are not subject of lawful commerce shall be destroyed.
The Court has interpreted and applied Article 45of the Revised Penal Code in People v. Jose,17 concerning the confiscation and forfeiture of the car used by the four accused when they committed the forcible abduction with rape, although the car did not belong to any of them, holding:
xxx Article 45 of the Revised Penal Code bars the confiscation and forfeiture of an instrument or tool used in the commission of the crime if such “be the property of a third person not liable for the offense,” it is the sense of this Court that the order of the court below for the confiscation of the car in question should be set aside and that the said car should be ordered delivered to the intervenor for foreclosure as decreed in the judgment of the Court of First Instance of Manila in replevin case. Xxx18
Such interpretation is extended by analogy to Section 20, supra. To bar the forfeiture of the tools and instruments belonging to a third person,therefore, there must be an indictment charging such third person either as a principal, accessory, or accomplice. Less than that will not suffice to prevent the return of the tools and instruments to the third person, for a mere suspicion of that person’s participation is not sufficient ground for the court to order the forfeiture of the goods seized.19
However, the Office of the City Prosecutor proposed through its Comment and Objection submitted on August 27, 2009 in the RTC20 hat the delivery to the RTC of the listed personal effects for safekeeping, to be held there throughout the duration of the trial, would be to enable the Prosecution and the Defense to exhaust their possible evidentiary value. The Office of the City Prosecutor further objected to the return of the car because it appeared to bet he vehicle used in the transaction of the sale of dangerous drugs, and, as such, was the instrument in the commission of the violation of Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165.
On its part, PDEA regards the decision of the CA to be not in accord with applicable laws and the primordial intent of the framers of R. A. No. 9165,21 and contends that the car should not be released from the custody of the law because it had been seized from accused Brodett during a legitimate anti-illegal operation. It argues that the Motion to Return Non-Drug Evidence did not intimate or allege that the car had belonged to a third person; and that even if the car had belonged to Ms. Brodett, a third person, her ownership did not ipso facto authorize its release, because she was under the obligation to prove to the RTC that she had no knowledge of the commission of the crime. It insists that the car is a property in custodial egis and may not be released during the pendency of the trial.
We agree with PDEA and the Office of the City Prosecutor.
We note that the RTC granted accused Brodett’s Motion To Return Non-Drug Evidence on November 4, 2009 when the criminal proceedings were still going on, and the trial was yet to be completed. Ordering the release of the car at that point of the proceedings was premature, considering that the third paragraph of Section 20, supra, expressly forbids the disposition, alienation, or transfer of any property, or income derived therefrom, that has been confiscated from the accused charged under R.A. No. 9165 during the pendency of the proceedings in the Regional Trial Court. Section 20 further expressly requires that such property or income derived therefrom should remain in custodia legis in all that time and that no bond shall be admitted for the release of it.
Indeed, forfeiture, if warranted pursuant to either Article 45 of the Revised Penal Code and Section 20 of R.A. No. 9165, would be a part of the penalty to be prescribed. The determination of whether or not the car (or any other article confiscated in relation to the unlawful act) would be subject of forfeiture could be made only when the judgment was to be rendered in the proceedings. Section 20 is also clear as to this.
The status of the car (or any other article confiscated in relation to the unlawful act) for the duration of the trial in the RTCas being in custodia legis is primarily intended to preserve it as evidence and to ensure its availability as such. To release it before the judgment is rendered is to deprive the trial court and the parties access to it as evidence. Consequently, that photographs were ordered to be taken of the car was not enough, for mere photographs might not fill in fully the evidentiary need of the Prosecution. As such, the RTC’s assailed orders were issued with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction for being in contravention with the express language of Section 20 of R.A. No. 9165.
X x x.
The directive to return the non-drug evidence has overtaken the petition for review as to render further action upon it superfluous. Yet, the Court seizes the opportunity to perform its duty to formulate guidelines on the matter of confiscation and forfeiture of non-drug articles, including those belonging to third persons not liable for the offense, in order to clarify the extent of the power of the trial court under Section 20 of R.A. No. 9165.23 This the Court must now do in view of the question about the confiscation and forfeiture of non-drug objects being susceptible of repetition in the future.24
We rule that henceforth the Regional Trial Courts shall comply strictly with the provisions of Section 20 of R.A. No. 9165, and should not release articles, whether drugs or non-drugs, for the duration of the trial and before the rendition of the judgment, even if owned by a third person who is not liable for the unlawful act.
X x x.”
1 24 CJS, Criminal Law, § 1733.
2 Villaruz v. Court of First Instance,71 Phil. 72 (1940).
3 United States v. Bruhez, 28 Phil. 305 (1914).
4 United States v. Surla, 20 Phil. 163 (1911).
5 United States v. Filart and Singson, 30 Phil. 80 (1915).
6 Section 3, Rule 126, Rules of Court.
7 Section 13, Rule 126, Rules of Court.
8 Caterpillar, Inc. v. Samson, G.R. No. 164605, October 27, 2006, 505 SCRA 704, 711.
9 24 CJS, Criminal Law, §1733, c., citing United States v. Premises Known as 608 Taylor Ave., Apartment 302, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, C.A. Pa., 584 F. 2d 1297.
10 Padilla v. United States, C.A. Cal., 267 F. 2d 351
11 24 CJS, Criminal Law, §1733, c., citing State v. Allen, 66 N.W. 2d 830, 159 Neb. 314.
12 Id., citing Hutchinson v. Rosetti, 205 N.Y.S. 2d 526, 24 Misc. 2d 949.
13 d., citing United States v. Estep, C.A. 10(Okl.), 760 F. 2d 1060.
14 d., citing United States v. Premises Known as 608 Taylor Ave., Apartment 302, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, C.A. Pa., 584 F. 2d 1297.
15 Rollo, pp. 44-45.
16 Emphasis supplied.
17 No. L-28232, February 6, 1971, 37 SCRA 450.
18 Id., p. 482.
19 I Reyes, The Revised Penal Code, 15th Edition, pp. 638-639.
20 Rollo, pp. 63-64.
21 Id., pp. 2-32.
22 Judgment dated August 26, 2011 rendered in Criminal Case No. 09-208 and Criminal Case No. 09-209.
23 Salonga v. Cruz Paño, No. L-59524, February 18, 1985, 134 SCRA 438, 463; David v. Macapagal-Arroyo, G.R. No. 171396, May 3, 2006, 489 SCRA 160, 215.
24 David v. Macapagal-Arroyo, G.R. No. 171396, May 3, 2006, 489 SCRA 160, 215;Albaña v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 163302, July 23, 2004, 435 SCRA 98; Acop v. Guingona, Jr., G.R. No. 134855, July 2, 2002, 383 SCRA 577;Sanlakas v. Executive Secretary, G.R. No. 159085, February 3, 2004, 421 SCRA 656.