Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obstruction of Justice

by Obiter07

What are you guilty of if you trip a Justice of the Court? Obstruction of Justice. Corny, yes. But it is no laughing matter where you see it in the headlines to justify the “arrest” of househelp, drivers and even relatives of the deceased in a suspected killing or suicide without warrants or apparently, formal charges.

The charge is based on a 1981 Presidential Decree “PENALIZING OBSTRUCTION OF APPREHENSION AND PROSECUTION OF CRIMINAL OFFENDERS” (P.D. No. 1829). The Decree imposes the penalty of imprisonment or a fine of up to P6,000 (Section 1) or both upon “upon any person who knowingly or willfully obstructs, impedes, frustrates or delays the apprehension of suspects and the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases by committing any of the following acts:

(a) preventing witnesses from testifying in any criminal proceeding or from reporting the commission of any offense or the identity of any offender/s by means of bribery, misrepresentation, deceit, intimidation, force or threats;

(b) altering, destroying, suppressing or concealing any paper, record, document, or object, with intent to impair its verity, authenticity, legibility, availability, or admissibility as evidence in any investigation of or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or to be used in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(c) harboring or concealing, or facilitating the escape of, any person he knows, or has reasonable ground to believe or suspect, has committed any offense under existing penal laws in order to prevent his arrest, prosecution and conviction;

(d) publicly using a fictitious name for the purpose of concealing a crime, evading prosecution or the execution of a judgment, or concealing his true name and other personal circumstances for the same purpose or purposes;

(e) delaying the prosecution of criminal cases by obstructing the service of process or court orders or disturbing proceedings in the fiscal's offices, in Tanodbayan, or in the courts;

(f) making, presenting or using any record, document, paper or object with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(g) soliciting, accepting, or agreeing to accept any benefit in consideration of abstaining from, discontinuing, or impeding the prosecution of a criminal offender;

(h) threatening directly or indirectly another with the infliction of any wrong upon his person, honor or property or that of any immediate member or members of his family in order to prevent such person from appearing in the investigation of, or official proceedings in, criminal cases, or imposing a condition, whether lawful or unlawful, in order to prevent a person from appearing in the investigation of or in official proceedings in, criminal cases;

(i) giving of false or fabricated information to mislead or prevent the law enforcement agencies from apprehending the offender or from protecting the life or property of the victim; or fabricating information from the data gathered in confidence by investigating authorities for purposes of background information and not for publication and publishing or disseminating the same to mislead the investigator or the court.

If any of the acts mentioned herein is penalized by any other law with a higher penalty, the higher penalty shall be imposed.”

Based on newspaper accounts, those arrested are being charged for obstruction for “cleaning” the scene of the crime, the vehicle used to bring the victim to the hospital and the alleged weapon, a pistol. Letters (a) and (b) above seem to be the most applicable to the case.

We will not comment on whether the charges will prosper as that will be something that will ultimately be up to the prosecutor and later the courts to decide. But the manner by which people were picked up can be open to question.

If the “suspects” were arrested, this does not appear to be one of the instances where warrantless arrests are allowed. Under Rule 113 of the Rules on Criminal Procedure, a warrantless arrest is justified only in the following instances:

“Sec. 5. Arrest without warrant; when lawful. – A peace officer or a private person may, without a warrant, arrest a person:

(a) When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;

(b) When an offense has just been committed and he has probable cause to believe based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances that the person to be arrested has committed it; and

(c) When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment or place where he is serving final judgment or is temporarily confined while his case is pending, or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another. xxx”

Only the first and second instances could be argued to apply in this case. However, if the acts have been completed there can no longer be any arrest. There was no crime committed in the presence of the police. For the second instance, this typically envisions a “hot pursuit” after an offense has “just been committed” and there is personal knowledge on the part of the arresting officer that the person arrested has committed the same.[1]

How long a time passed between the alleged commission of the offense and the arrests seen on T.V.? Why could not the police wait to file formal charges and wait for a warrant of arrest? Could not the witnesses have been invited or questioned and not treated as accused?

We appear to have enforcers of the law who are prone to shortcuts, either out of ignorance of the law or by ignoring its requirements when it suits them. Being deprived of liberty and brought to detention is a serious matter and contravenes rights guaranteed by the Constitution. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws (Article III, Section 1). These rights seem empty and unenforceable now.

During this spectacle, who obstructs justice, the police who are sworn to uphold it, or the suspects who are entitled to the presumption of innocence?[2]

The Supreme Court has already issued this warning once:

“We cannot close this ponencia without a word of caution: those who are supposed to enforce the law are not justified in disregarding the rights of the individual in the name of order. Order is too high a price for the loss of liberty. As Justice Holmes once said, "I think it is less evil that some criminals should escape than that the government should play an ignoble part." It is simply not allowed in free society to violate a law to enforce another, especially if the law violated is the Constitution itself. PEOPLE vs. LAGUIO, JR., et al.[G.R. No. 128587. March 16, 2007.]

[1] This interdiction against warrantless searches and seizures, however, is not absolute and such warrantless searches and seizures have long been deemed permissible by jurisprudence in instances of (1) search of moving vehicles, (2) seizure in plain view, (3) customs searches, (4) waiver or consented searches, (5) stop and frisk situations (Terry search), and search incidental to a lawful arrest. The last includes a valid warrantless arrest, for, while as a rule, an arrest is considered legitimate [if] effected with a valid warrant of arrest, the Rules of Court recognize permissible warrantless arrest, to wit: (1) arrest in flagrante delicto, (2) arrest effected in hot pursuit, and (3) arrest of escaped prisoners. 48 (Emphasis supplied.) PEOPLE vs. CABUGATAN, [G.R. No. 172019. February 12, 2007.]

[2] SECTION 14. (1) No person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law. (2) In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved, and shall enjoy the right to be heard by himself and counsel, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him, to have a speedy, impartial, and public trial, to meet the witnesses face to face, and to have compulsory process to secure the attendance of witnesses and the production of evidence in his behalf. However, after arraignment, trial may proceed notwithstanding the absence of the accused provided that he has been duly notified and his failure to appear is unjustifiable.(ARTICLE III, Constitution)


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