G.R. No. 173473 - PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES v. BETH TEMPORADA

Promulgated:

December 17, 2008

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DISSENTING OPINION

 

PUNO, C.J.:

The Court today basks magnanimous in its application of the rule that penal laws should be construed in favor of the accused. Although I acknowledge that the application of this rule in the interpretation of the Indeterminate Sentence Law (ISL) is properly aligned with the fundamental principle and purpose of the ISL to uplift and redeem human material and to prevent unnecessary and excessive deprivation of personal liberty and economic usefulness,[1] I am constrained to disagree with the reasoning of the majority.

In lieu of a straight penalty, the ISL provides for guidelines for the determination of an indeterminate sentence, which shall be composed of a maximum and a minimum; thus, for crimes punishable under the Revised Penal Code (RPC), Section 1 of the ISL provides that “the court shall sentence the accused to an indeterminate sentence the maximum term of which shall be that which, in view of the attending circumstances, could be properly imposed under the rules of the said Code, and the minimum of which shall be within the range of the penalty next lower to that prescribed by the Code for the offense.”[2] (emphasis supplied)

While there is no dispute as to the determination of the maximum of the indeterminate sentence for the crime of estafa, the ponente puts into issue the computation of the minimum when the crime committed calls for the computation of additional or incremental penalties.

The penalty prescribed by the Code for the crime of estafa is worded as follows:

Article 315. Swindling (estafa). – Any person who shall defraud another by any of the means mentioned hereinbelow shall be punished by:

1st. The penalty of prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period, if the amount of the fraud is over 12,000 pesos but does not exceed 22,000 pesos, and if such amount exceeds the latter sum, the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional 10,000 pesos; but the total penalty which may be imposed shall not exceed twenty years. In such cases, and in connection with the accessory penalties which may be imposed and for the purpose of the other provisions of this Code, the penalty shall be termed prision mayor or reclusion temporal, as the case may be. (emphasis suppied)

The problematic portion of Section 1 of the ISL in relation to the above-quoted provision is the phrase “prescribed by the Code,” which is essential in determining the range within which the minimum of the indeterminate sentence can be pegged. As can be observed from Article 315, the penalty prescribed for estafa in cases involving amounts exceeding P22,000 may be interpreted in two ways: first, that the term “penalty prescribed” in Section 1 of the ISL merely refers to the phrase “the penalty provided in this paragraph,” which refers to “prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period,” without as yet considering the addition of one year for each additional P10,000 involved; or second, that the “penalty prescribed” denotes the whole phrase “the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional 10,000 pesos.”

In essence, the existing jurisprudence[3] which the ponencia staunchly defended and upheld, adheres to the first interpretation. Under this view, since the “penalty prescribed” by the RPC for estafa is prision correccional maximum to prision mayor minimum, the range of the penalty within which the minimum of the indeterminate sentence would be determined would be that degree next lower thereto, or prision correccional in its minimum to medium periods. Accordingly, the incremental penalty or the additional number of years for the corresponding increase in the amounts involved in the fraud is merely considered as a “modifying circumstance” which is considered in the determination of the maximum­-but not the minimum­-of the indeterminate sentence. Hence, the range within which the minimum of the indeterminate sentence under the current computation can be pegged is permanently set at prision correccional in its minimum to medium periods.

On the other hand, the second interpretation provides that the minimum of the indeterminate sentence should be arrived at by descending one degree down the scale from the principal penalty, after factoring in the incremental penalty into the same. In other words, for purposes of determining the minimum of the indeterminate sentence, the so-called “prescribed penalty” for frauds involving amounts exceeding P22,000 denotes a penalty which has already been computed according to the number of years in excess of P22,000. Necessarily, the distance between the maximum and the minimum shall always be only one degree away.

I find that this second interpretation is more in keeping with the intent and letter of the ISL and the RPC.

It is a basic rule in statutory construction that care should be taken that every part of a statute be given effect and a construction that could render a provision inoperative should be avoided, and inconsistent provisions should be reconciled whenever possible as parts of a harmonious whole; for taken in solitude, a word or phrase might easily convey a meaning quite different from the one actually intended and evident when a word or phrase is considered with those with which it is associated.[4]

In our jurisdiction, “incremental penalty” as used in relation to crimes against property now refers to the phrase “and if such amount exceeds the latter sum, the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional 10,000 pesos.” I submit that for purposes of determining the minimum of the indeterminate sentence, the “penalty prescribed” for estafaestafa, as that in theft, hinges on the value or amount involved.[5] should include the incremental penalty, since the penalty for

People v. Gabres[6] was the first case which expounded on the treatment of the incremental penalty as a modifying circumstance in the computation of the penalty for estafa involving amounts exceeding P22,000.00. It explained thus:

Under the Indeterminate Sentence Law, the maximum term of the penalty shall be “that which, in view of the attending circumstances, could be properly imposed” under the Revised Penal Code, and the minimum shall be “within the range of the penalty next lower to that prescribed” for the offense. The penalty next lower should be based on the penalty prescribed by the Code for the offense, without first considering any modifying circumstance attendant to the commission of the crime.  The determination of the minimum penalty is left by law to the sound discretion of the court and it can be anywhere within the range of the penalty next lower without any reference to the periods into which it might be subdivided. The modifying circumstances are considered only in the imposition of the maximum term of the indeterminate sentence.

The fact that the amounts involved in the instant case exceed P22,000.00 should not be considered in the initial determination of the indeterminate penalty; instead, the matter should be so taken as analogous to modifying circumstances in the imposition of the maximum term of the full indeterminate sentence. This interpretation of the law accords with the rule that penal laws should be construed in favor of the accused. Since the penalty prescribed by law for the estafa charge against accused-appellant is prision correccional maximum to prision mayor minimum, the penalty next lower would then be prision correccional minimum to medium. Thus, the minimum term of the indeterminate sentence should be anywhere within six (6) months and one (1) day to four (4) years and two (2) months while the maximum term of the indeterminate sentence should at least be six (6) years and one (1) day because the amounts involved exceeded P22,000.00, plus an additional one (1) year for each additional P10,000.00. (emphasis supplied)

To my mind, the rationale in Gabres is flawed. A plain reading of the provision on estafa yields the conclusion that the law, as in the crime of theft,[7] intended a graduated penalty, viz: for estafa involving the amount of P200 and below, the penalty shall be arresto mayor in its medium and maximum periods; for amounts over P200 but not exceeding P6,000, arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period; for amounts over P6,000 but not exceeding P12,000, prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods; and finally, the penalty subject of the controversy herein, “prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period, if the amount of the fraud is over P12,000 but does not exceed 22,000 pesos; and if such amount exceeds the latter sum, the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional 10,000 pesos; but the total penalty which may be imposed shall not exceed twenty years.” Verily, the manner in which Article 315 was crafted lends an insight into the intention of the RPC, which is to ensure that the penalty for the crime committed be commensurate to the amount of the fraud. Hence, I submit that the  so-called incremental penalty is exactly that–an incremental penalty–and not a modifying circumstance. Short of the RPC enumerating all the gradations of the penalty for each amount that might be involved, the  Code merely provided a formula in order to arrive at the prescribed penalty. Nonetheless, a prescribed penalty had been intended, and that prescribed penalty can still be easily derived after a mechanical application of the given formula. In fact, this is not the first time we treated a modifying circumstance as separate and distinct from the incremental penalty, thus, in the case of People v. Hernando[8]:

On the other hand, the minimum of the indeterminate sentence shall be within the range of the penalty next lower in degree to that prescribed by the Code for the offense, without first considering any modifying circumstance nor the incremental penalty for the amount in excess of twenty two thousand (P22,000.00) pesos. Such penalty is prision mayor, with a duration of six (6) years and one (1) day to twelve (12) years. (emphasis supplied)

This position is boosted by the qualifier at the end of the provision on the penalty for frauds involving amounts exceeding P22,000. To revisit Article 315:

Article 315. Swindling (estafa). – Any person who shall defraud another by any of the means mentioned hereinbelow shall be punished by:

1st. The penalty of prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period, if the amount of the fraud is over 12,000 pesos but does not exceed 22,000 pesos, and if such amount exceeds the latter sum, the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional 10,000 pesos; but the total penalty which may be imposed shall not exceed twenty years. In such cases, and in connection with the accessory penalties which may be imposed and for the purpose of the other provisions of this Code, the penalty shall be termed prision mayor or reclusion temporal, as the case may be. (emphasis suppied)

As can be seen, the RPC attempts to limit the penalty prescribed, i.e., the computed penalty, to a maximum of twenty years. Furthermore, the computed penalty is mandated to be termed prision mayor or reclusion temporal, as the case may be, in keeping with the statement of the prescribed penalties for frauds of lower amounts. Had the law intended the incremental penalty to be a modifying circumstance, there would have been no sense in doing so. The more plausible explanation, therefore, is that the RPC is prescribing a penalty for frauds exceeding P22,000. On this note, therefore, I am in agreement with the view that the penalty of prision correccional maximum to prision mayor minimum provided in the Code is merely the initial prescription or the starting point–but not the complete penalty–which should be the basis for determining the range of “the penalty next lower than that prescribed by the Code” in order to determine the minimum of the indeterminate sentence.

The rational backbone and main justification of the first interpretation is founded upon the rule in statutory construction that penal laws should be construed in favor of the accused. Mindful as I am of the woes and wails of our prisoners, I cannot bring myself to ignore the error in this reasoning.

It must be recalled that the construction in favor of the accused is rooted in the presumption of innocence which stems from the constitutional right to due process. Hence, the strict construction against the government as regards penal laws pertains to cases in which the accused stands to be deprived of either life, liberty or property.

In the instant case, I find that the application of this rule is somewhat strained. For one, the threat of losing life, liberty or property without due process of law is more apparent than real, because the subjects of the ISL are no longer merely accused individuals.  On the contrary, they are already  convicted felons whose guilt had already been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Hence, I do not see how they can still be accorded the presumption of innocence.

Further, I am in doubt as to the characterization of the ISL as a penal law that could warrant a presumption of innocence for the accused. A penal law is an act of the legislature that prohibits certain acts and establishes penalties for its violations.[9] A closer look at the ISL, however, reveals that it does not make any act punishable. Its complete title is telling: “An Act To Provide For An Indeterminate Sentence And Parole For All Persons Convicted Of Certain Crimes By The Courts Of The Philippine Islands; To Create A Board Of Indeterminate Sentence And To Provide Funds Therefor; And For Other Purposes.” Moreover, the classification of the ISL as penal was made arbitrarily and without clear legal basis. People v. Nang Kay,[10] which cited the Corpus Juris Secundum, points to the U.S. case of State v. Groos[11] as its authority for saying that the ISL is a penal statute. A perusal of the said U.S. case reveals, however, that the penal character of the ISL was not put into issue in that case, and that it was merely assumed that the ISL is a penal law. Accordingly, I submit that the presumption of innocence
could not be used in granting leniency in the computation of the minimum in the ISL.

Finally, even if we concede that the ISL is a legislation akin to an act of grace geared towards the rehabilitation of criminals, and it being so, the intention of the lawmakers must be given effect, I still stand firm that the existing interpretation is erroneous and reeks of disrespect to the sacrosanct principles of justice and fairness.

It must be remembered that a statute’s clauses and phrases must not be taken separately, but in relation to the statute’s totality.  Further, each statute must be construed as to harmonize it with the pre-existing body of laws.  Provisions of statutes must be reconciled, unless clearly repugnant.[12]

In the present case, it is clear that it could not have been the intention of the RPC to do away with the gradations of penalty for the crime of estafa. Yet that is precisely what the majority has decided to do today. To be sure, the existing interpretation disturbs the ladderized penalty scheme provided in the RPC and grants an undeserved protection to felons convicted of frauds involving higher amounts.  In effect, this puts in the same category those who merely committed frauds involving lower amounts, thus, defeating the letter and intent of the RPC and the ISL. For these reasons, I am duty bound to register my dissent.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, I vote to AFFIRM the decision of the Court of Appeals.

REYNATO S. PUNO

Chief Justice



[1] People v. Nang Kay, 88 Phil. 515, (1951).

[2] RPC, Section 1.

[3] The “First School of Thought,” according to the ponencia.

[4] Equatorial Realty Development, Inc. v. Sps. Desiderio & Frogozo, G.R. No. 128563, March 25, 2004, 426 SCRA 271.

[5] People v. Concepcion, G.R. No. 131477, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 168, 182.

[6] G.R. Nos. 118950-54, February 6, 1997, 267 SCRA 581.

[7] People v. Concepcion, supra note 5.

[8] G.R. No. 125214, October 28, 1999, 317 SCRA 617.

[9]Yu Oh v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 125287, June 6, 2003, 403 SCRA 300, 308, citing Lacson v. Executive Secretary, et al., G.R. No. 128096, January 20, 1999, 301 SCRA 298, 323.

[10] No. L-3565, 88 Phil. 515, 520 (1951).

[11] 110 Conn. 403, 148 A. 350, January 6, 1930.

[12] Supra note 4.