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PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

FIRST DIVISION

[G.R. NOS. 147578-85 - January 28, 2008]

ROLANDO L. BALDERAMA, Petitioner, v. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES and JUAN S. ARMAMENTO, Respondents.

[G.R. NOS. 147598-605 - January 28, 2008]

ROLANDO D. NAGAL, Petitioner, v. JUAN S. ARMAMENTO, Private Respondent, and THE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR, Public Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

SANDOVAL-GUTIERREZ, J.:

Before us are two consolidated Petitions for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, as amended, seeking to reverse the Joint Decision1 of the Sandiganbayan dated November 17, 2000 in Criminal Cases Nos. 20669, 20670, 20672, 20674, 20675, 20676, 20677, and 20678; and its Resolution dated March 20, 2001.

Rolando L. Balderama, petitioner in G.R. NOS. 147578-85, and Rolando D. Nagal, petitioner in G.R. NOS. 147598-605, were employed with the Land Transportation Commission (LTO) assigned to the Field Enforcement Division, Law Enforcement Services. Juan S. Armamento, respondent in both cases, operates a taxi business with a fleet of ten (10) taxi units.

Acting on complaints that taxi drivers in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport discriminate against passengers and would transport them to their destinations only on a "contract" basis, the LTO created a team to look into the veracity of the complaints. Petitioners in these cases were members of the team, popularly known as "Flying Squad," together with Cipriano L. Lubrica and Cresencio de Jesus.

On July 14, 1992, the team flagged down for inspection an "SJ Taxi" owned by respondent. The team impounded the taxi on the ground that its meter was defective. However, upon inspection and testing by the LTO Inspection Division, the results showed that contrary to the report of the team, the meter waiting time mechanism of the vehicle was not defective and was functioning normally. The vehicle was released to respondent.

On December 2, 1992, respondent, feeling aggrieved of the malicious impounding of his vehicle, filed with the Office of the Ombudsman a complaint for bribery and violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 3019, as amended,2 against herein petitioners as well as Lubrica and de Jesus. He alleged that prior to the impounding of his taxi, the four LTO officers had been collecting "protection money" from him. On February 15, 1992, they went to his office and proposed they would not apprehend his drivers and impound his vehicles for violations of LTO rules, provided he gives them the amount of P400.00 every 15th and 30th day of the month. They agreed to the reduced amount of P300.00. On the same day, he started giving them P300.00 and from then on, every 15th and 30th day of the month until June 15, 1992. Thereafter, he failed to give them the agreed amount because his business was not doing well.

Eventually, the Office of the Ombudsman filed with the Sandiganbayan nine (9) Informations for violations of Article 210 of the Revised Penal Code3 against petitioners and the other members of the team, docketed as Criminal Cases Nos. 20669-20677. All the Informations were identically worded, except the date of the commission of the crimes. For brevity, we reproduce the Information in Criminal Case No. 20669 as sample, thus:

Criminal Case No. 20669

That on or about February 15, 1992 or for sometime prior thereto in Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused all public officers, being all employees of the Land transportation Office assigned with the Field Enforcement Division, Law Enforcement Services, committing the offense in relation to their office and taking advantage of their position, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously solicit, demand and receive from Juan Armamento, a taxicab operator, the amount of P300.00 in consideration for the said accused refraining from performing their official duty of conducting inspections on the taxicab units being operated by said Juan Armamento to determine any possible violation of LTO rules and regulations, thereby causing Juan Armamento and the public service damage and prejudice.

CONTRARY TO LAW.

They were also charged with violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019, as amended. The Information, docketed as Criminal Case No. 20678, reads:

That on or about July 14, 1992 or for sometime prior or subsequent thereto, in Metro Manila, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, all accused public officers, being employees of the Land transportation Office, assigned with the Field Enforcement Division, Law Enforcement Services, while in the discharge of their official administrative functions, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and criminally cause undue injury to Juan Armamento, a taxicab operator, through evident bad faith by apprehending and impounding one (1) unit of his taxicab with Plate No. PKD-726 for alleged violation of LTO rules and regulations, in that, its meter is defective (waiting time not functioning), which was later on established to be not true, thereby depriving said Juan Armamento of the use of his taxicab unit for about three (3) days and to realize income thereon for the same period, as well as incur unnecessary expenses in effecting the release of his impounded unit from the impounding area of the LTO.

CONTRARY TO LAW.

Upon arraignment on June 30, 1994, the accused, assisted by counsel, pleaded not guilty. The cases were consolidated and tried jointly. Prior thereto, they were suspended pendente lite from the service for a period of ninety (90) days.

On March 5, 1999, accused de Jesus died. The cases against him were dismissed. The hearing proceeded against petitioners and Lubrica.

In a Decision dated November 17, 2000, the Sandiganbayan found petitioners and Lubrica guilty of direct bribery in seven (7) of the nine (9) Informations filed against them and were sentenced in each count "to suffer the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment of 4 years and 2 months, as minimum, to 5 years, 4 months and 20 days, as maximum, within the range of prision correccional, and to suffer the penalty of special temporary disqualification." They were further ordered to pay a fine of P300.00 without subsidiary imprisonment in case of insolvency and "to restitute the amount of P300.00 as alleged in the Informations." They were acquitted in Criminal Cases Nos. 20671 and 20673 for failure of the prosecution to establish their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Petitioners and Lubrica were also convicted in Criminal Case No. 20678 for violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019, as amended, and were sentenced to suffer imprisonment of six (6) years and one (1) month, as minimum, to ten (10) years and one (1) day, as maximum. They were also disqualified perpetually from holding public office and were ordered to indemnify the respondent the amount of P1,500.00, representing his lost income for the 3-day period that the taxi cab remained in the LTO impounding unit.

Petitioners and Lubrica filed separate motions for reconsideration arguing that they were not yet grouped as a team on February 15, 1992, hence, there could be no conspiracy. While the motion was pending resolution, both petitioners filed separate motions for new trial based on an affidavit dated December 22, 2000 executed by respondent recanting his previous testimony and pointing to Lubrica and de Jesus as the only culprits.

On March 20, 2001, the Sandiganbayan denied the motions for reconsideration and the motions for new trial. In denying the motions for reconsideration, the Sandiganbayan ruled:

Anent the second argument, the Supreme Court has made these pronouncements:

Direct proof is not essential to prove conspiracy, as it may be shown by acts and circumstances from which may logically be inferred the existence of a common design, or may be deduced from the mode and manner in which the offense was perpetuated. (see People v. Cabiling, 74 SCRA 785; People v. Tingson, 47 SCRA 243; People v. Alonso, 73 SCRA 484).

Thus, for failure of the accused to controvert prosecution's evidence that all four of them went to the office of the private complainant on February 15, 1992 and offered him to refrain from subjecting his taxi units to apprehension for notation of LTO rules, provided that he comes across with the amount of P400.00 (later reduced to P300.00) to be delivered twice a month and it was accused Nagal who received the P300.00 on April 30, 1992, Balderama on May 30, in the presence of de Jesus, Lubrica on February 15, February 28 together with Nagal, March 30 and June 15, and that in fact, Manimtim witnessed the incident which occurred on May 15 and February 15, 1992 and saw Balderama and de Jesus waiting in the mobile car together with Nagal, this Court's finding of conspiracy holds.

In denying the motions for new trial, the Sandiganbayan held:

Retraction of testimonies previously given in Court are viewed with disfavor. As a general rule, a motion for new trial will not be granted if based on an affidavit of a witness where the effect is to free the appellant from participation in the commission of the crime. The recantation made by the private complainant after the conviction of the accused is unreliable and deserves scant consideration.

In the case of People v. Soria, 262 SCRA 739, the Supreme Court declared:

Indeed, it would be dangerous rule to reject the testimony taken before the Court of justice simply because the witness later changed his mind for one reason or another, for such a rule will make a solemn trial a mockery and will place the investigation of truth at the mercy of unscrupulous witnesses. It bears stressing that a testimony in court is made under conditions calculated to discourage and forestall falsehood.

Both petitioners filed with this Court separate Petitions for Review on Certiorari, both arguing that the Sandiganbayan erred: (1) in finding that they are guilty of the offenses charged; (2) in holding that petitioners and their co-accused acted in conspiracy; and (3) in disregarding the recantation made by respondent.

On January 4, 2003, Lubrica likewise filed with this Court a Petition for Review on Certiorari . In our Decision dated February 26, 2007, we denied his petition for being late. Our Decision became final and was recorded in the Book of Entries of Judgments on April 20, 2007.

The sole issue for our resolution is whether the guilt of the accused, now petitioners, in these cases has been proved by evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

The crime of direct bribery as defined in Article 210 of the Revised Penal Code contains the following elements: (1) that the accused is a public officer; (2) that he received directly or through another some gift or present, offer or promise; (3) that such gift, present or promise has been given in consideration of his commission of some crime, or any act not constituting a crime, or to refrain from doing something which is his official duty to do; and (4) that the crime or act relates to the exercise of his functions as a public officer.4

The Sandiganbayan found the above elements of direct bribery present. It was duly established that the accused demanded and received P300.00 as "protection money" from respondent on several dates. As against the prosecution's evidence, all that the accused could proffer was alibi and denial, the weakest of defenses.

Anent Criminal Case No. 20678, to hold a person liable under Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019, the concurrence of the following elements must be established beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution: (1) that the accused is a public officer or a private person charged in conspiracy with the former; (2) that the said public officer commits the prohibited acts during the performance of his or her official duties or in relation to his or her public positions; (3) that he or she causes undue injury to any party, whether the government or a private party; and (4) that the public officer has acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence.5 The Sandiganbayan found that petitioners and Lubrica participated directly in the malicious apprehension and impounding of the taxi unit of respondent, causing him undue injury.6

Settled is the rule that findings of fact of the Sandiganbayan in cases before this Court are binding and conclusive in the absence of a showing that they come under the established exceptions, among them: 1) when the conclusion is a finding grounded entirely on speculation, surmises and conjectures; 2) the inference made is manifestly mistaken; 3) there is a grave abuse of discretion; 4) the judgment is based on misapprehension of facts; 5) said findings of facts are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based; and, 6) the findings of fact of the Sandiganbayan are premised on the absence of evidence on record.7 We found none of these exceptions in the present cases.

Petitioners' prayer for complete acquittal on the strength of respondent's affidavit of recantation fails to impress us.

A recantation or an affidavit of desistance is viewed with suspicion and reservation.8 The Court looks with disfavor upon retractions of testimonies previously given in court. It is settled that an affidavit of desistance made by a witness after conviction of the accused is not reliable, and deserves only scant attention.9 The rationale for the rule is obvious: affidavits of retraction can easily be secured from witnesses, usually through intimidation or for a monetary consideration. Recanted testimony is exceedingly unreliable. There is always the probability that it will later be repudiated.10 Only when there exist special circumstances in the case which when coupled with the retraction raise doubts as to the truth of the testimony or statement given, can retractions be considered and upheld.11 As found by the Sandiganbayan, "(t)here is indubitably nothing in the affidavit which creates doubts on the guilt of accused Balderama and Nagal."

WHEREFORE, we DENY the petition. The challenged Decision of the Sandiganbayan dated November 17, 2000 in Criminal Cases Nos. 20669, 20670, 20672, 20674, 20675, 20676, 20677 and 20678 is AFFIRMED in toto.

SO ORDERED.

Endnotes:


1 Penned by Associate Justice Rodolfo G. Palattao and concurred in by Associate Justice Narciso S. Nario and Associate Justice Nicodemo T. Ferrer (all retired).

2 Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

3 Art. 210. Direct bribery. Any public officer who shall agree to perform an act constituting a crime, in connection with the performance of his official duties, in consideration of any offer, promise, gift, or present received by such officer, personally or through the mediation of another, shall suffer the penalty of prision mayor in its minimum and medium periods and a fine of not less than three times the value of the gift, in addition to the penalty corresponding to the crime agreed upon, if the same shall have been committed.

If the gift was accepted by the officer in consideration of the execution of an act which does not constitute a crime, and the officer executed said act, he shall suffer the same penalty provided in the preceding paragraph; and if said act shall not have been accomplished, the officer shall suffer the penalties of prision correccional in its medium period and a fine of not less than twice the value of such gift.

If the object for which the gift was received or promised was to make the public officer refrain from doing something which it was his official duty to do, he shall suffer the penalties of prision correccional in its maximum period to prision mayor in its minimum period and a fine not less than three times the value of such gift.

In addition to the penalties provided in the preceding paragraphs, the culprit shall suffer the penalty of special temporary disqualification.

The provisions contained in the preceding paragraphs shall be made applicable to assessors, arbitrators, appraisal and claim commissioners, experts or any other persons performing public duties.

4 Manipon, Jr. v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. L-58889, July 31, 1986, 143 SCRA 267, 273, citing Maniego v. People, 88 Phil. 494 (1951).

5 Llorente v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 122166, March 11, 1998, 287 SCRA 382, 398, citing Ponce de Leon v. Sandiganbayan, 186 SCRA 745, 754 (1990); Pecho v. Sandiganbayan, 238 SCRA 116, 128 (1994); Jacinto v. Sandiganbayan, 178 SCRA 254, 259 (1989); and Medija, Jr. v. Sandiganbayan, 218 SCRA 219, 223 (1993).

6 Rollo, pp. 50-52.

7 Gil v. People, G.R. No. 73642, September 1, 1989, 177 SCRA 229, 236, citing Cesar v. Sandiganbayan, 134 SCRA 105 (1985).

8 People v. Ramirez, Jr., G.R. NOS. 150079-80, June 10, 2004, 431 SCRA 666, 676, citing People v. Bertulfo, 381 SCRA 762 (2002); People v. Nardo, 353 SCRA 339 (2001); Alonte v. Savellano, Jr., 287 SCRA 245 (1998); Reano v. Court of Appeals, 165 SCRA 525 (1988).

9 Santos v. People, G.R. No. 147615, January 20, 2003, 395 SCRA 507, 514.

10 Id., p. 515, citing Lopez v. CA, 239 SCRA 562 (1994).

11 Alonte v. Savellano, Jr., supra.




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