Dissension in the Court: July 2010

The following are selected decisions promulgated by the High Court in July 2010 where at least one Justice felt compelled to express his or her dissent from the decision penned by the ponente.  Coincidentally, the cases discussed below each involve subject matters that have been proven to induce perilous narcotic effects: illegal drugs and local elections.

1. Unbroken Chain of Custody (Abad vs. Villarama)

In People of the Philippines vs. Noel Catentay, Justice Roberto Abad noted that in a case of illegal sale of dangerous drugs it is essential to prove (1) the identities of the buyer and the seller; (2) the sale of dangerous drugs, and (3) the existence of the corpus delicti (i.e., the illicit drug) as evidence.  In connection with the last requirement, it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the integrity of the corpus delicti by establishing the chain of custody of the alleged illegal substance that the police officers seized from the accused.  In other words, apart from the existence of an accused (who may or may not have integrity), the prosecution has to establish the integrity of the seized article; that it had been preserved from the time the same was seized to the time it was presented in evidence at the trial.

Justice Abad conceded that the prosecution in this case established through the arresting officer’s testimonial evidence that the he seized two sachets of white crystalline substances from Catentay, marked them with his initials, heat-sealed the sachets and placed his initials on them. However, because the prosecution did not present the forensic chemist who opened the sachets and examined the substances in them, the chemist was unable to attest to the fact that the substances presented in court were the same substances he found positive for shabu.

The main decision acknowledged that among the stipulations agreed to at the pre-trial were that the heat-sealed marked sachets were received by the forensic chemist who concluded that the contents tested positive for drugs.  However, there was no stipulation or evidence to show that the forensic chemist properly closed and resealed the plastic sachets with adhesive and placed his own markings on the resealed plastic to preserve the integrity of their contents until they were brought to court.  Instead, the plastic sachets presented at the pre-trial did not bear the forensic chemist’s seal and was brought from the crime laboratory by someone who did not care to testify how he came to be in possession of the same.  Accordingly, the evidence did not establish the unbroken chain of custody.  Catentay acquitted.

Justice Martin S. Villarama, Jr., the sole dissenter, asserted that the fact that the forensic chemist was not presented should not operate to acquit Catentay.  According to Justice Villarama, in a precedent ruling, the Court held that the non-presentation of a forensic chemist in illegal drug cases is an insufficient cause for acquittal since the report prepared by the chemist regarding a recovered prohibited drug enjoys the presumption of regularity in its preparation and should be deemed conclusive in the absence of evidence proving the contrary.

(People of the Philippines vs. Noel Catentay, G.R. No. 183101, July 6, 2010. See dissenting opinion here.)

(author’s note:  This author surmises, based on the recital of facts in both the main decision and the dissent, that the prosecution had this case won until they curiously failed in the seemingly easy task of presenting the forensic chemist (this feels much like a basketball game where the team that is ahead for most of the game squanders its large lead in the last two minutes).  That the prosecution should have presented the forensic chemist seems clear since it was expressly stipulated at pre-trial that the chemist will identify the illegal drugs he examined.  In support of his contrary conclusion, Justice Villarama cited a precedent ruling (People v.  Zenaida Quebral y Mateo, et al.).  However, from the excerpt from Quebral that the dissenter himself quoted, the defense in that case actually agreed during trial to dispense with the testimony of the chemist and stipulated on his findings.  The rulings do not say that there was a similar agreement in this case. This author thus sides with the majority.)

2. An Arbitrary, Despotic and Hostile Comelec (Brion vs. Velasco)

The case of Mitra vs. Comelec, et al., penned by Justice Arturo D. Brion involved the qualification of Abraham Kahlil “Baham” Mitra to be elected to the post of Governor of the Province of Palawan.  In particular, it entailed ascertaining whether Mitra fulfilled the residency requirement.

At the time this action arose, Mitra, then a domiciliary of Puerto Princesa, was the duly elected Congressional representative of the second district of Palawan which district, among others, encompassed the Municipality of Aborlan and Puerto Princesa City.  His term as Representative was to expire in 2010.

On March 26, 2007, Puerto Princesa City was reclassified as a “highly urbanized city” and thus ceased to be a component city of the Province of Palawan.  The direct legal consequence of this new status was the ineligibility of Puerto Princesa City residents from voting for candidates for elective provincial officials.

On March 20, 2009, with the intention of running for the position of Governor, Mitra applied for the transfer of his Voter’s Registration Record from a precinct in Puerto Princesa to one in the Municipality of Aborlan.  He subsequently filed his certificate of candidacy (COC) for the position of Governor of Palawan as a resident of Aborlan.

As a result of this, the private respondents filed a petition to deny due course or to cancel Mitra’s COC arguing that Mitra remained a resident of Puerto Princesa and had not yet established residence in Aborlan and, therefore, he is not qualified to run for Governor of Palawan.  Mitra, on the other hand, asserted that he had abandoned Puerto Princesa City as his domicile of origin, and has established a new domicile in Aborlan since 2008.

The matter was first heard summarily at the Commission on Elections’s (Comelec) First Division wherein both parties had submitted evidence consisting of a miscellany of photographs, affidavits, community tax certificates, building permit applications, lease and sale deeds and other legal documents that ostensibly supported each of their conflicting positions.  The First Division evaluated the evidence and ultimately issued a decision that Mitra had not sufficiently established his residency in Aborlan and thus, his COC should be cancelled.  The matter was expectedly elevated to the Comelec en banc who likewise reviewed the factual evidence submitted by the parties and eventually affirmed the decision of the First Division.

Mitra thus sought relief from the Supreme Court, including injunctive relief given that the May 2010 elections were fast approaching.  Six days before the elections, the Supreme Court issued a status quo ante order allowing Mitra to be voted for in the May 10, 2010 elections wherein Mitra obtained the highest number of votes as Governor of Palawan.

With respect to Mitra’s assertion that the Comelec acted with grave abuse of discretion in the manner by which it appreciated the evidence presented, Justice Brion reiterated that the concept of grave abuse of discretion generally refers to “capricious or whimsical exercise of judgment as is equivalent to lack of jurisdiction.”  Justice Brion continued to explain that:

the abuse of discretion must be patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, or to act at all in contemplation of law, as where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion and hostility.  Mere abuse of discretion is not enough; it must be grave. We have held, too, that the use of wrong or irrelevant considerations in deciding an issue is sufficient to taint a decision-maker’s action with grave abuse of discretion.

Justice Brion followed with noting that under Section 5, Rule 64 of the Rules of Court, that findings of fact of the Comelec, supported by substantial evidence, shall be final and non-reviewable.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court does not ordinarily review the Comelec’s appreciation and evaluation of evidence in a certiorari case as any misstep by the Comelec in this regard generally involves an error of judgment, not of jurisdiction.

However, the ponente added that:

in exceptional cases, when the Comelec’s action on the appreciation and evaluation of evidence oversteps the limits of its discretion to the point of being grossly unreasonable, the Court is not only obliged, but has the constitutional duty to intervene.  When grave abuse of discretion is present, resulting errors arising from the grave abuse mutate from error of judgment to one of jurisdiction.

On this basis, the majority proceeded to evaluate the evidence of the parties against the findings of fact of the Comelec and came to the conclusion that the Comelec gravely abused its discretion in its appreciation of the evidence that lead it to conclude that Mitra is not a resident of Aborlan, Palawan.  The Comelec used wrong considerations and grossly misread the evidence in arriving at its ruling. The Comelec also, according to the Court, failed to critically consider whether Mitra deliberately attempted to mislead, misinform or hide a fact that would otherwise render him ineligible for the position of Governor of Palawan (under Section 78 of the Omnibus Election Code, a petition to cancel a COC requires proof that any material representation in a COC is false).

In disagreeing with the majority, Justice Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr. took issue with the majority’s determination that the Comelec acted with grave abuse of discretion.  He noted that in the absence of grave abuse of discretion or any jurisdictional infirmity or error of law, the factual findings, conclusions, rulings and decisions rendered by the Comelec on matters falling within its competence should not be interfered with by the Supreme Court. The Comelec’s appreciation and evaluation of evidence is not ordinarily reviewed by the Supreme Court since any error on this regard generally involves and error of judgment, not an error of jurisdiction. Thus, where the issue or question involved affects the wisdom or legal soundness of the decision – not the jurisdiction of the court to render said decision – Justice Velasco argues that the same is beyond the province of a special civil action for certiorari.

Accordingly, Justice Brion, in the dissenter’s consideration, was clearly in error when he substituted the factual findings of the Comelec based on substantial evidence with its own findings of facts which were based on controverted or unsubstantiated evidence.

At any rate, Justice Velasco proceeded to himself evaluate the evidence of the parties and having done so, maintained the position that in view of the overwhelming evidence submitted by the private respondents, the Comelec correctly cancelled Mitra’s COC.

(Abraham Kahlil B. Mitra vs. Commission on Elections, Antonio vs. Gonzales and Orlando R. Balbon, Jr., G.R. No. 191938, July 2, 2010.  See dissenting opinion here.)

(author’s note:  After a couple of decades of law practice, this author remains somewhat confused about the limits to the High Court’s review of the factual findings of a lower tribunal.  Yes, he is well aware of the grave abuse of discretion exception—i.e., the abuse of discretion that must be “patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, or to act at all in contemplation of law, as where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion and hostility.”  That’s quite a high standard for the grave abuse of discretion exception to kick in.  Still and all, it might just be a little bit more consistent, if honest, to formulate the exception in this manner: “when the Supreme Court wants to.”  That should make this author slightly less befuddled.)