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SECOND DIVISION

G.R. No. 111107 January 10, 1997

LOEONARDO A. PAAT, in his capacity as Officer-in-Charge (OIC), Regional Executive Director (RED), Region 2 and JOVITO LAYUGAN, JR., in his capacity as Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer (CENRO), both of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Petitioners, v. COURT OF APPEALS, HON. RICARDO A. BACULI in his capacity as Presiding Judge of Branch 2, Regional Trial Court at Tuguegarao, Cagayan, and SPOUSES BIENVENIDO and VICTORIA DE GUZMAN, Respondents.

TORRES, JR., J.:

Without violating the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies, may an action for replevin prosper to recover a movable property which is the subject matter of an administrative forfeiture proceeding in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources pursuant to Section 68-A of P.D. 705, as amended, entitled The Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines?

Are the Secretary of DENR and his representatives empowered to confiscate and forfeit conveyances used in transporting illegal forest products in favor of the government?

These are two fundamental questions presented before us for our resolution.

The controversy on hand had its incipiency on May 19, 1989 when the truck of private respondent Victoria de Guzman while on its way to Bulacan from San Jose, Baggao, Cagayan, was seized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR, for brevity) personnel in Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya because the driver could not produce the required documents for the forest products found concealed in the truck. Petitioner Jovito Layugan, the Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer (CENRO) in Aritao, Cagayan, issued on May 23, 1989 an order of confiscation of the truck and gave the owner thereof fifteen (15) days within which to submit an explanation why the truck should not be forfeited. Private respondents, however, failed to submit the required explanation. On June 22, 1989, 1 Regional Executive Director Rogelio Baggayan of DENR sustained petitioner Layugan's action of confiscation and ordered the forfeiture of the truck invoking Section 68-A of Presidential Decree No. 705 as amended by Executive Order No. 277. Private respondents filed a letter of reconsideration dated June 28, 1989 of the June 22, 1989 order of Executive Director Baggayan, which was, however, denied in a subsequent order of July 12, 1989. 2 Subsequently, the case was brought by the petitioners to the Secretary of DENR pursuant to private respondents' statement in their letter dated June 28, 1989 that in case their letter for reconsideration would be denied then "this letter should be considered as an appeal to the Secretary." 3 Pending resolution however of the appeal, a suit for replevin, docketed as Civil Case 4031, was filed by the private respondents against petitioner Layugan and Executive Director Baggayan 4 with the Regional Trial Court, Branch 2 of Cagayan, 5 which issued a writ ordering the return of the truck to private respondents. 6 Petitioner Layugan and Executive Director Baggayan filed a motion to dismiss with the trial court contending, inter alia, that private respondents had no cause of action for their failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss in an order dated December 28, 1989. 7 Their motion for reconsideration having been likewise denied, a petition for certiorari was filed by the petitioners with the respondent Court of Appeals which sustained the trial court's order ruling that the question involved is purely a legal question. 8 Hence, this present petition, 9 with prayer for temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction, seeking to reverse the decision of the respondent Court of Appeals was filed by the petitioners on September 9, 1993. By virtue of the Resolution dated September 27, 1993, 10 the prayer for the issuance of temporary restraining order of petitioners was granted by this Court.

Invoking the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies, petitioners aver that the trial court could not legally entertain the suit for replevin because the truck was under administrative seizure proceedings pursuant to Section 68-A of P.D. 705, as amended by E.O. 277. Private respondents, on the other hand, would seek to avoid the operation of this principle asserting that the instant case falls within the exception of the doctrine upon the justification that (1) due process was violated because they were not given the chance to be heard, and (2) the seizure and forfeiture was unlawful on the grounds: (a) that the Secretary of DENR and his representatives have no authority to confiscate and forfeit conveyances utilized in transporting illegal forest products, and (b) that the truck as admitted by petitioners was not used in the commission of the crime.

Upon a thorough and delicate scrutiny of the records and relevant jurisprudence on the matter, we are of the opinion that the plea of petitioners for reversal is in order.

This Court in a long line of cases has consistently held that before a party is allowed to seek the intervention of the court, it is a pre-condition that he should have availed of all the means of administrative processes afforded him. Hence, if a remedy within the administrative machinery can still be resorted to by giving the administrative officer concerned every opportunity to decide on a matter that comes within his jurisdiction then such remedy should be exhausted first before court's judicial power can be sought, The premature invocation of court's intervention is fatal to one's cause of action. 11 Accordingly, absent any finding of waiver or estoppel the case is susceptible of dismissal for lack of cause of
action. 12 This doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies was not without its practical and legal reasons, for one thing, availment of administrative remedy entails lesser expenses and provides for a speedier disposition of controversies. It is no less true to state that the courts of justice for reasons of comity and convenience will shy away from a dispute until the system of administrative redress has been completed and complied with so as to give the administrative agency concerned every opportunity to correct its error and to dispose of the case. However, we are not amiss to reiterate that the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies as tested by a battery of cases is not an ironclad rule. This doctrine is a relative one and its flexibility is called upon by the peculiarity and uniqueness of the factual and circumstantial settings of a case. Hence, it is disregarded (1) when there is a violation of due process, 13 (2) when the issue involved is purely a legal question, 14 (3) when the administrative action is patently illegal amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction, 15 (4) when there is estoppel on the part of the administrative agency concerned, 16 (5) when there is irreparable injury, 17 (6) when the respondent is a department secretary whose acts as an alter ego of the President bears the implied and assumed approval of the latter, 18 (7) when to require exhaustion of administrative remedies would be unreasonable, 19 (8) when it would amount to a nullification of a claim, 20 (9) when the subject matter is a private land in land case proceedings, 21 (10) when the rule does not provide a plain, speedy and adequate remedy, and (11) when there are circumstances indicating the urgency of judicial intervention. 22

In the case at bar, there is no question that the controversy was pending before the Secretary of DENR when it was forwarded to him following the denial by the petitioners of the motion for reconsideration of private respondents through the order of July 12, 1989. In their letter of reconsideration dated June 28, 1989, 23 private respondents clearly recognize the presence of an administrative forum to which they seek to avail, as they did avail, in the resolution of their case. The letter, reads, thus:

xxx xxx xxx

If this motion for reconsideration does not merit your favorable action, then this letter should be considered as an appeal to the
Secretary. 24

It was easy to perceive then that the private respondents looked up to the Secretary for the review and disposition of their case. By appealing to him, they acknowledged the existence of an adequate and plain remedy still available and open to them in the ordinary course of the law. Thus, they cannot now, without violating the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies, seek court's intervention by filing an action for replevin for the grant of their relief during the pendency of an administrative proceedings.

Moreover, it is important to point out that the enforcement of forestry laws, rules and regulations and the protection, development and management of forest lands fall within the primary and special responsibilities of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. By the very nature of its function, the DENR should be given a free hand unperturbed by judicial intrusion to determine a controversy which is well within its jurisdiction. The assumption by the trial court, therefore, of the replevin suit filed by private respondents constitutes an unjustified encroachment into the domain of the administrative agency's prerogative. The doctrine of primary jurisdiction does not warrant a court to arrogate unto itself the authority to resolve a controversy the jurisdiction over which is initially lodged with an administrative body of special competence. 25 In Felipe Ismael, Jr. and Co. v. Deputy Executive Secretary, 26 which was reiterated in the recent case of Concerned Officials of MWSS vs. Vasquez, 27 this Court held:

Thus, while the administration grapples with the complex and multifarious problems caused by unbriddled exploitation of these resources, the judiciary will stand clear. A long line of cases establish the basic rule that the courts will not interfere in matters which are addressed to the sound discretion of government agencies entrusted with the regulation of activities coming under the special technical knowledge and training of such agencies.

To sustain the claim of private respondents would in effect bring the instant controversy beyond the pale of the principle of exhaustion of administrative remedies and fall within the ambit of excepted cases heretofore stated. However, considering the circumstances prevailing in this case, we can not but rule out these assertions of private respondents to be without merit. First, they argued that there was violation of due process because they did not receive the May 23, 1989 order of confiscation of petitioner Layugan. This contention has no leg to stand on. Due process does not necessarily mean or require a hearing, but simply an opportunity or right to be heard. 28 One may be heard, not solely by verbal presentation but also, and perhaps many times more creditably and practicable than oral argument, through pleadings. 29 In administrative proceedings moreover, technical rules of procedure and evidence are not strictly applied; administrative process cannot be fully equated with due process in its strict judicial sense. 30 Indeed, deprivation of due process cannot be successfully invoked where a party was given the chance to be heard on his motion for reconsideration, 31 as in the instant case, when private respondents were undisputedly given the opportunity to present their side when they filed a letter of reconsideration dated June 28, 1989 which was, however, denied in an order of July 12, 1989 of Executive Director Baggayan, In Navarro III vs. Damasco, 32 we ruled that :

The essence of due process is simply an opportunity to be heard, or as applied to administrative proceedings, an opportunity to explain one's side or an opportunity to seek a reconsideration of the action or ruling complained of. A formal or trial type hearing is not at all times and in all instances essential. The requirements are satisfied when the parties are afforded fair and reasonable opportunity to explain their side of the controversy at hand. What is frowned upon is the absolute lack of notice or hearing.

Second, private respondents imputed the patent illegality of seizure and forfeiture of the truck because the administrative officers of the DENR allegedly have no power to perform these acts under the law. They insisted that only the court is authorized to confiscate and forfeit conveyances used in transporting illegal forest products as can be gleaned from the second paragraph of Section 68 of P.D. 705, as amended by E.O. 277. The pertinent provision reads as follows:

Sec. 68. . . .

xxx xxx xxx

The court shall further order the confiscation in favor of the government of the timber or any forest products cut, gathered, collected, removed, or possessed, as well as the machinery, equipments, implements and tools illegaly [sic] used in the area where the timber or forest products are found. (Emphasis ours)

A reading, however, of the law persuades us not to go along with private respondents' thinking not only because the aforequoted provision apparently does not mention nor include "conveyances" that can be the subject of confiscation by the courts, but to a large extent, due to the fact that private respondents' interpretation of the subject provision unduly restricts the clear intention of the law and inevitably reduces the other provision of Section 68-A, which is quoted herein below:

Sec. 68-A. Administrative Authority of the Department or His Duly Authorized Representative To Order Confiscation. In all cases of violation of this Code or other forest laws, rules and regulations, the Department Head or his duly authorized representative, may order the confiscation of any forest products illegally cut, gathered, removed, or possessed or abandoned, and all conveyances used either by land, water or air in the commission of the offense and to dispose of the same in accordance with pertinent laws, regulations and policies on the matter. (Emphasis ours)

It is, thus, clear from the foregoing provision that the Secretary and his duly authorized representatives are given the authority to confiscate and forfeit any conveyances utilized in violating the Code or other forest laws, rules and regulations. The phrase "to dispose of the same" is broad enough to cover the act of forfeiting conveyances in favor of the government. The only limitation is that it should be made "in accordance with pertinent laws, regulations or policies on the matter." In the construction of statutes, it must be read in such a way as to give effect to the purpose projected in the statute. 33 Statutes should be construed in the light of the object to be achieved and the evil or mischief to be suppressed, and they should be given such construction as will advance the object, suppress the mischief, and secure the benefits intended. 34 In this wise, the observation of the Solicitor General is significant, thus:

But precisely because of the need to make forestry laws "more responsive to present situations and realities" and in view of the "urgency to conserve the remaining resources of the country," that the government opted to add Section 68-A. This amendatory provision is an administrative remedy totally separate and distinct from criminal proceedings. More than anything else, it is intended to supplant the inadequacies that characterize enforcement of forestry laws through criminal actions. The preamble of EO 277-the law that added Section 68-A to PD 705-is most revealing:

"WHEREAS, there is an urgency to conserve the remaining forest resources of the country for the benefit and welfare of the present and future generations of Filipinos;

WHEREAS, our forest resources may be effectively conserved and protected through the vigilant enforcement and implementation of our forestry laws, rules and regulations;

WHEREAS, the implementation of our forestry laws suffers from technical difficulties, due to certain inadequacies in the penal provisions of the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines; and

WHEREAS, to overcome this difficulties, there is a need to penalize certain acts more responsive to present situations and realities;"

It is interesting to note that Section 68-A is a new provision authorizing the DENR to confiscate, not only "conveyances," but forest products as well. On the other hand, confiscation of forest products by the "court" in a criminal action has long been provided for in Section 68. If as private respondents insist, the power on confiscation cannot be exercised except only through the court under Section 68, then Section 68-A would have no Purpose at all. Simply put, Section 68-A would not have provided any solution to the problem perceived in EO 277, supra. 35

Private respondents, likewise, contend that the seizure was illegal because the petitioners themselves admitted in the Order dated July 12, 1989 of Executive Director Baggayan that the truck of private respondents was not used in the commission of the crime. This order, a copy of which was given to and received by the counsel of private respondents, reads in part, viz.:

. . . while it is true that the truck of your client was not used by her in the commission of the crime, we uphold your claim that the truck owner is not liable for the crime and in no case could a criminal case be filed against her as provided under Article 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code. . . 36

We observed that private respondents misread the content of the aforestated order and obviously misinterpreted the intention of petitioners. What is contemplated by the petitioners when they stated that the truck "was not used in the commission of the crime" is that it was not used in the commission of the crime of theft, hence, in no case can a criminal action be filed against the owner thereof for violation of Article 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code. Petitioners did not eliminate the possibility that the truck was being used in the commission of another crime, that is, the breach of Section 68 of P.D. 705 as amended by E.O. 277. In the same order of July 12, 1989, petitioners pointed out:

. . . However, under Section 68 of P.D. 705 as amended and further amended by Executive Order No. 277 specifically provides for the confiscation of the conveyance used in the transport of forest products not covered by the required legal documents. She may not have been involved in the cutting and gathering of the product in question but the fact that she accepted the goods for a fee or fare the same is therefor liable. . . 37

Private respondents, however, contended that there is no crime defined and punishable under Section 68 other than qualified theft, so that, when petitioners admitted in the July 12, 1989 order that private respondents could not be charged for theft as provided for under Articles 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code, then necessarily private respondents could not have committed an act constituting a crime under Section 68. We disagree. For clarity, the provision of Section 68 of P.D. 705 before its amendment by E.O. 277 and the provision of Section 1 of E.O. No. 277 amending the aforementioned Section 68 are reproduced herein, thus:

Sec. 68. Cutting, gathering and/or collecting timber or other products without license. - Any person who shall cut, gather, collect, or remove timber or other forest products from any forest land, or timber from alienable and disposable public lands, or from private lands, without any authority under a license agreement, lease, license or permit, shall be guilty of qualified theft as defined and punished under Articles 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code . . . (Emphasis ours; Section 68, P.D. 705 before its amendment by E.O. 277)

Sec. 1. Section 68 of Presidential Decree No. 705, as amended, is hereby amended to read as follows:

Sec. 68. Cutting, gathering and/or collecting timber or other forest products without license. - Any person who shall cut, gather, collect, remove timber or other forest products from any forest land, or timber from alienable or disposable public land, or from private land, without any authority, or possess timber or other forest products without the legal documents as required under existing forest laws and regulations, shall be punished with the penalties imposed under Articles 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code . . . (Emphasis ours; Section 1, E.O. No. 277 amending Section 68, P.D. 705 as amended)

With the introduction of Executive Order No. 277 amending Section 68 of P.D. 705, the act of cutting, gathering, collecting, removing, or possessing forest products without authority constitutes a distinct offense independent now from the crime of theft under Articles 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code, but the penalty to be imposed is that provided for under Article 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code. This is clear from the language of Executive Order No. 277 when it eliminated the phrase "shall be guilty of qualified theft as defined and punished under Articles 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code" and inserted the words "shall be punished with the penalties imposed under Article 309 and 310 of the Revised Penal Code". When the statute is clear and explicit, there is hardly room for any extended court ratiocination or rationalization of the law. 38

From the foregoing disquisition, it is clear that a suit for replevin can not be sustained against the petitioners for the subject truck taken and retained by them for administrative forfeiture proceedings in pursuant to Section 68-A of the P.D. 705, as amended. Dismissal of the replevin suit for lack of cause of action in view of the private respondents' failure to exhaust administrative remedies should have been the proper course of action by the lower court instead of assuming jurisdiction over the case and consequently issuing the writ ordering the return of the truck. Exhaustion of the remedies in the administrative forum, being a condition precedent prior to one's recourse to the courts and more importantly, being an element of private respondents' right of action, is too significant to be waylaid by the lower court.

It is worth stressing at this point, that a suit for replevin is founded solely on the claim that the defendant wrongfully withholds the property sought to be recovered. It lies to recover possession of personal chattels that are unlawfully detained. 39 "To detain" is defined as to mean "to hold or keep in custody," 40 and it has been held that there is tortious taking whenever there is an unlawful meddling with the property, or an exercise or claim of dominion over it, without any pretense of authority or right; this, without manual seizing of the property is sufficient. 41 Under the Rules of Court, it is indispensable in replevin proceeding that the plaintiff must show by his own affidavit that he is entitled to the possession of property, that the property is wrongfully detained by the defendant, alleging the cause of detention, that the same has not been taken for tax assessment, or seized under execution, or attachment, or if so seized, that it is exempt from such seizure, and the actual value of the property. 42 Private respondents miserably failed to convince this Court that a wrongful detention of the subject truck obtains in the instant case. It should be noted that the truck was seized by the petitioners because it was transporting forest products without the required permit of the DENR in manifest contravention of Section 68 of P.D. 705 as amended by E.O 277. Section 68-A of P.D. 705, as amended, unquestionably warrants the confiscation as well as the disposition by the Secretary of DENR or his duly authorized representatives of the conveyances used in violating the provision of forestry laws. Evidently, the continued possession or detention of the truck by the petitioners for administrative forfeiture proceeding is legally permissible, hence, no wrongful detention exists in the case at bar.

Moreover, the suit for replevin is never intended as a procedural tool to question the orders of confiscation and forfeiture issued by the DENR in pursuance to the authority given under P.D. 705, as amended. Section 8 of the said law is explicit that actions taken by the Director of the Bureau of Forest Development concerning the enforcement of the provisions of the said law are subject to review by the Secretary of DENR and that courts may not review the decisions of the Secretary except through a special civil action for certiorari or prohibition. It reads:

Sec. 8. REVIEW - All actions and decisions of the Director are subject to review, motu propio or upon appeal of any person aggrieved thereby, by the Department Head whose decision shall be final and executory after the lapse of thirty (30) days from the receipt of the aggrieved party of said decision, unless appealed to the President in accordance with Executive Order No. 19, Series of 1966. The Decision of the Department Head may not be reviewed by the courts except through a special civil action for certiorari or prohibition.

WHEREFORE, the Petition is GRANTED; the Decision of the respondent Court of Appeals dated October 16, 1991 and its Resolution dated July 14, 1992 are hereby SET ASIDE AND REVERSED; the Restraining Order promulgated on September 27, 1993 is hereby made permanent; and the Secretary of DENR is directed to resolve the controversy with utmost dispatch.

SO ORDERED.

Regalado, Romero, Puno and Mendoza, JJ., concur.


Endnotes:

1 Rollo p. 235.

2 Rollo pp. 241-242.

3 Rollo p. 239.

4 Baggayan died during the pendency of Civil Case 4031, he was succeeded in office by Petitioner Leonardo Paat.

5 Presided by Judge Ricardo A. Baculi.

6 Rollo pp. 251-252.

7 Rollo pp. 274-275.

8 Rollo pp. 36-46 penned by Justice Serafin V.C. Guingona, concurred by Justices Luis A. Javellana and Jorge S. Imperial.

9 Rollo pp. 14-35.

10 Rollo pp. 117-119.

11 National Development Company v. Hervilla, L-65718, June 30, 1987; Atlas Consolidated Mining Company vs. Mendoza, G.R. No. L -15809, August 30, 1961; Aboitiz v. Collector of Customs, G.R. No. L-29466, May 18, 1978; Pestenas v. Dyogi, G.R. No. L-25786, February 27, 1978.

12 Soto v. Jareno, G.R. No. 38962, September 15, 1986; Hodges v. Mun. Board, L-18276, January 12, 1967; Abe-Abe v. Manta, L-4827, May 31, 1979; Gone v. District Engineer, L-22782, August 29, 1975.

13 Quisumbing v. Judge Gumban, G.R. No. 85156, February 5, 1991.

14 Eastern Shipping Lines v. POEA, L-76633, October 18, 1988.

15 Industrial Power Sales, Inc. V. Sinsuat, L-29171, April 15, 1988.

16 Vda. De Tan v. Veterans Backpay Commission, L-12944, March 30, 1959.

17 De Lara v. Cloribel, G.R. No. L-21653, May 31, 1965.

18 Demaisip v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 13000, September 25, 1959; Bartulata v. Peralta, G.R. No. 23155, September 9, 1974.

19 Cipriano v. Marcelino, G.R. No. L-27793, February 28, 1972.

20 Alzate v. Aldana, G.R. No. 14407, February 29, 1960.

21 Soto v. Jareno, supra.

22 Quisumbing v. Judge Gumban, supra.

23 Rollo pp. 236-240.

24 Rollo p. 239.

25 Vidad v. RTC, G.R. No. 98084, October 18, 1993.

26 G.R. No. 79538, October 18, 1990.

27 G.R. No. 109113, January 25, 1995.

28 Pepsi Cola Distributors of the Phil. V. NLRC, G.R. No. 100686, August 15, 1995.

29 Concerned Officials of MWSS vs. Vasquez, supra.

30 Ibid.

31 Rodriguez v. Project 6 Market Service Cooperative, G.R. No. 79968, August 23, 1995.

32 G.R. No. 101875, July 14, 1995.

33 Lopez, Jr. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 104158, November 6, 1992.

34 De Guia v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 104712, May 6, 1992.

35 Rollo pp. 170-171; Memorandum pp. 12-13.

36 Rollo p. 242.

37 Ibid.

38 Libanan v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 112386, June 14, 1994.

39 American Jurisprudence, Second Edition, Volume 66, p. 850, footnote 57; I. Tanenbaum Son and Company vs. C. Ludwig Baumann and Company, 261 NY 85, 184 NE 503, 86 ALR 102.

40 Ibid., footnote 59; Anderson vs. Hapler, 34 III 436; Wails vs. Farrington, 27 Okla 754, 116 P 428.

41 Id., footnote 60 ; Haythorn vs. Rushforth, 19 NJL 160.

42 Section 2, Rule 60 of the Rules of Court.




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