Constitutionality of law penalizing loitering

Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code penalizes any person found loitering about public or semi-public buildings or places or tramping or wandering about the country or the streets without visible means of support. It provides:

Art. 202. Vagrants and prostitutes; penalty. — The following are vagrants:

1.     Any person having no apparent means of subsistence, who has the physical ability to work and who neglects to apply himself or herself to some lawful calling;

2.     Any person found loitering about public or semi-public buildings or places or tramping or wandering about the country or the streets without visible means of support;

3.     Any idle or dissolute person who lodges in houses of ill fame; ruffians or pimps and those who habitually associate with prostitutes;

4.     Any person who, not being included in the provisions of other articles of this Code, shall be found loitering in any inhabited or uninhabited place belonging to another without any lawful or justifiable purpose;

5.     Prostitutes.

For the purposes of this article, women who, for money or profit, habitually indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct, are deemed to be prostitutes.

Any person found guilty of any of the offenses covered by this articles shall be punished by arresto menor or a fine not exceeding 200 pesos, and in case of recidivism, by arresto mayor in its medium period to prision correccional in its minimum period or a fine ranging from 200 to 2,000 pesos, or both, in the discretion of the court.

Evangeline Siton and Krystel Kate Sagarano were charged with vagrancy under Article 202 (2) of the Revised Penal Code. Instead of submitting their counter-affidavits as directed, they filed separate Motions to Quash on the ground that Article 202 (2) is unconstitutional for being vague and overbroad.

The municipal trial court declared Article 202(2) constitutional. Evangeline and Krystel filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition with the Regional Trial Court of Davao City, directly challenging the constitutionality of the anti-vagrancy law.  They claimed that the definition of the crime of vagrancy under Article 202 (2), apart from being vague, results in an arbitrary identification of violators, since the definition of the crime includes in its coverage persons who are otherwise performing ordinary peaceful acts. They likewise claimed that Article 202 (2) violated the equal protection clause under the Constitution because it discriminates against the poor and unemployed, thus permitting an arbitrary and unreasonable classification.

The Regional Trial Court agreed with Evangeline and Krystel.  In declaring Article 202 (2) unconstitutional, the Regional Trial Court opined that the law is vague and violated the equal protection clause.  It held that the “void for vagueness” doctrine is equally applicable in testing the validity of penal statutes.

The Supreme Court reversed the Regional Trial Court and ruled that Article 202(2) is not vague:

The power to define crimes and prescribe their corresponding penalties is legislative in nature and inherent in the sovereign power of the state to maintain social order as an aspect of police power. The legislature may even forbid and penalize acts formerly considered innocent and lawful provided that no constitutional rights have been abridged.  However, in exercising its power to declare what acts constitute a crime, the legislature must inform the citizen with reasonable precision what acts it intends to prohibit so that he may have a certain understandable rule of conduct and know what acts it is his duty to avoid. This requirement has come to be known as the void-for-vagueness doctrine which states that “a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, violates the first essential of due process of law. . . ”

The Regional Trial Court, in asserting the unconstitutionality of Article 202 (2), take support mainly from the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in the Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville . . .

The underlying principles in Papachristou are that: 1) the assailed Jacksonville ordinance “fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden by the statute;” and 2) it encourages or promotes opportunities for the application of discriminatory law enforcement.

The said underlying principle in Papachristou that the Jacksonville ordinance, or Article 202 (2) in this case, fails to give fair notice of what constitutes forbidden conduct, finds no application here because under our legal system, ignorance of the law excuses no one from compliance therewith. This principle is of Spanish origin, and we adopted it to govern and limit legal conduct in this jurisdiction. Under American law, ignorance of the law is merely a traditional rule that admits of exceptions.

Moreover, the Jacksonville ordinance was declared unconstitutional on account of specific provisions thereof, which are not found in Article 202 (2). . .

Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court in Jacksonville declared the ordinance unconstitutional, because such activities or habits as nightwalking, wandering or strolling around without any lawful purpose or object, habitual loafing, habitual spending of time at places where alcoholic beverages are sold or served, and living upon the earnings of wives or minor children, which are otherwise common and normal, were declared illegal. But these are specific acts or activities not found in Article 202 (2). The closest to Article 202 (2) – “any person found loitering about public or semi-public buildings or places, or tramping or wandering about the country or the streets without visible means of support” – from the Jacksonville ordinance, would be “persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object.” But these two acts are still not the same: Article 202 (2) is qualified by “without visible means of support” while the Jacksonville ordinance prohibits wandering or strolling “without any lawful purpose or object,” which was held by the U.S. Supreme Court to constitute a “trap for innocent acts.”

The Supreme Court also ruled that Article 202(2) does not violate the equal protection clause:

Article 202 (2) does not violate the equal protection clause; neither does it discriminate against the poor and the unemployed. Offenders of public order laws are punished not for their status, as for being poor or unemployed, but for conducting themselves under such circumstances as to endanger the public peace or cause alarm and apprehension in the community. Being poor or unemployed is not a license or a justification to act indecently or to engage in immoral conduct.

Vagrancy must not be so lightly treated as to be considered constitutionally offensive. It is a public order crime which punishes persons for conducting themselves, at a certain place and time which orderly society finds unusual, under such conditions that are repugnant and outrageous to the common standards and norms of decency and morality in a just, civilized and ordered society, as would engender a justifiable concern for the safety and well-being of members of the community.

Finally, the Supreme Court also emphasized the rule the statues are presumed constitutional:

. . . we agree with the position of the State that first and foremost, Article 202 (2) should be presumed valid and constitutional. When confronted with a constitutional question, it is elementary that every court must approach it with grave care and considerable caution bearing in mind that every statute is presumed valid and every reasonable doubt should be resolved in favor of its constitutionality. The policy of our courts is to avoid ruling on constitutional questions and to presume that the acts of the political departments are valid in the absence of a clear and unmistakable showing to the contrary. To doubt is to sustain, this presumption is based on the doctrine of separation of powers which enjoins upon each department a becoming respect for the acts of the other departments. The theory is that as the joint act of Congress and the President of the Philippines, a law has been carefully studied, crafted and determined to be in accordance with the fundamental law before it was finally enacted.

It must not be forgotten that police power is an inherent attribute of sovereignty. It has been defined as the power vested by the Constitution in the legislature to make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and reasonable laws, statutes and ordinances, either with penalties or without, not repugnant to the Constitution, as they shall judge to be for the good and welfare of the commonwealth, and for the subjects of the same. The power is plenary and its scope is vast and pervasive, reaching and justifying measures for public health, public safety, public morals, and the general welfare. As an obvious police power measure, Article 202 (2) must therefore be viewed in a constitutional light.

(People of the Philippines vs. Evangeline Siton y Sacil, et al., G.R. No. 169364, September 18, 2009.)