Perhaps you’ve heard someone making threats to file criminal cases against debtors who fail to pay. Yet you’ve heard the statement that no one can be imprisoned simply because of a debt. This is a basic principle and we thought we already have a discussion on this topic. We indeed have such discussion but we forgot to post it here. So here goes.
The prohibition against imprisonment for a debt is a basic right enshrined in no less than the Constitution (Article III):
No person shall be imprisoned for debt or non-payment of a poll tax.
The rationale for this prohibition is explained in the case of Lozano vs. Martinez, thus:
. . . Viewed in its historical context, the constitutional prohibition against imprisonment for debt is a safeguard that evolved gradually during the early part of the nineteenth century in the various states of the American Union as a result of the people’s revulsion at the cruel and inhumane practice, sanctioned by common law, which permitted creditors to cause the incarceration of debtors who could not pay their debts. At common law, money judgments arising from actions for the recovery of a debt or for damages from breach of a contract could be enforced against the person or body of the debtor by writ of capias ad satisfaciendum. By means of this writ, a debtor could be seized and imprisoned at the instance of the creditor until he makes the satisfaction awarded. As a consequence of the popular ground swell against such a barbarous practice, provisions forbidding imprisonment for debt came to be generally enshrined in the constitutions of various states of the Union.
This humanitarian provision was transported to our shores by the Americans at the turn of the century and embodied in our organic laws. Later, our fundamental law outlawed not only imprisonment for debt, but also the infamous practice, native to our shore, of throwing people in jail for non-payment of the cedula or poll tax.
In other words, no one could be compelled to pay a debt under pain of criminal sanctions (estafa is a different matter). No one could also substitute the payment of debt through imprisonment or other criminal penalties (subsidiary imprisonment is also another matter).
Let’s examine some laws that were questioned, albeit unsuccessfully, on the ground that these laws violate the constitutional prohibition against non-imprisonment for debt.
Bouncing checks. Certain laws, including Bouncing Checks Law (BP 22), have been questioned as a violation of this right. However, it’s not the non-payment of an obligation which this law punishes. The law isn’t designed to coerce a debtor to pay his debt. The thrust of the law is to prohibit, under pain of penal sanctions, the making of worthless checks and putting them in circulation. Checks have become widely accepted as a medium of payment in trade and commerce, and if the confidence in checks is shaken, the usefulness of checks as currency substitutes would be greatly diminished. When the question was resolved in 1986, it had been reported that the approximate value of bouncing checks per day was close to 200 Million Pesos, thereafter averaging between P50 to P80 Million a day. (Lozano vs. Martinez)
Trust receipts. The same argument was raised against the Trust Receipts Law (PD 115), which is a declaration by the legislative authority that, as a matter of public policy, the failure of a person to turn over the proceeds of the sale of goods covered by a trust receipt or to return said goods if not sold is a public nuisance to be abated by the imposition of penal sanctions. It punishes the dishonesty and abuse of confidence in the handling of money or goods to the prejudice of another. The law does not seek to enforce payment of a loan. (Tiomico vs. CA)
Credit cards. Under the Access Devices Regulation Act of 1998 (RA. 8484), anyone who obtains “money or anything of value through the use of an access device, with intent to defraud or with intent to gain and fleeing thereafter” is criminally liable, punishable with a fine and imprisonment. That law also provides that a cardholder who abandons or surreptitiously leaves the place of employment, business or residence stated in his application or credit card, without informing the credit card company of the place where he could actually be found, if at the time of such abandonment or surreptitious leaving, the outstanding and unpaid balance is past due for at least 90 days and is more than P10,000.00, shall be prima facie presumed to have used his credit card with intent to defraud.” We are still waiting for the test case on this.