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Early release for prisoners!

Gregorio Miguel Pallugna .

SAY, you were convicted for a commission of a crime many years ago and you have already served a portion of your sentence. You would think that you are bound to spend the next several years in prison to complete your sentence before you can go free. What if I told you that you don’t have to?

That is exactly what the Supreme Court said when it decided the case of Ophelia Hernan on Dec. 5, 2017. Hernan was a cashier of the Department of Transportation and Communication in the Cordillera Region. An audit by the COA revealed that Hernan was not able to account for the amount of P11,300 which apparently was not deposited to the Land Bank of the Philippines. Hernan was convicted for Malversation of Public Funds and was sentenced with imprisonment of seven years, four months and a day, as minimum, to 11 years, six months and 21 days as maximum. The maximum being more than six years of imprisonment, Hernan was disqualified from availing of the relief of probation and was forced to appeal the case, or otherwise serve the sentence. The Sandiganbayan where the appeal eventually landed, denied it saying that there was enough evidence to prove that there was negligence on Hernan’s part which allowed the malversation of the amount. The Sandiganbayan’s decision became final without any appeal, but Hernan later filed a motion to lift the finality of the judgment on the claim that the failure to file an appeal was because the Resolution of the Sandiganbayan was served to the lawyer’s old address. This motion was also denied. Left with no other choice, Hernan brought the matter to the Supreme Court.  And, this is where the magic happened.

The Supreme Court denied the petition on the ground that the service of the Resolution to the old office address was clearly due to the fault of Hernan’s lawyer who did not notify the Sandiganbayan of the change of address. This being the case, they can no longer question the finality of the judgment of conviction. The Supreme Court however, did not end there.

In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that after the conviction of the accused Hernan, the Congress of the Philippines passed Republic Act No. 10951, an Act adjusting the value of the property and damage on which the penalty of an offense is based. This law effectively decreased the penalty of Hernan’s offense. Supposedly, a judgment that is already final can no longer be reopened. This is based on the principle of immutability of judgments, which prohibits courts to modify any judgment except for correction of clerical errors, reversal of void judgments, or whenever circumstances transpire after the finality of the decision, which render its execution unjust and inequitable. The Supreme Court said that none of these exceptions are present in Hernan’s case. But…

The Supreme Court added a new exception to the rule. Citing Rule II of the Internal Rules of the Supreme Court, which provides that cases raising novel questions of law are acted upon by the Court en banc, the highest court of the land lifted the finality of Hernan’s Case. It did so not to reverse the conviction of Hernan but to modify the penalty imposed. According to the court, the passage of RA 10951 is an exceptional circumstance which raised a novel question of law. It then went on to explain that, since under our laws any new legislation that is beneficial to the accused is deemed to have retroactive effect, persons who have already been convicted and sentenced with a penalty that is now decreased by RA 10951 should be allowed to benefit from the decrease of penalty under the new law. To allow this, the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of Hernan’s case and decreased the penalty from a maximum of more than 11 years to a maximum only of less than four years. This being the case, Hernan is now qualified to avail of the relief of Probation which is available to a person convicted with a penalty of imprisonment of not more than six years. The Supreme Court categorically said that Hernan may even apply for probation with the court’s modification of the penalty.

This is a very novel decision from the Supreme Court which should now allow persons previously convicted and even serving sentence to ask for the reopening of their case for the purpose of reducing the penalty imposed upon them. It should be noted that RA 10951 did not only modify the penalties for Malversation but also for several other offenses. Even more, the justification of the court’s ruling in Hernan vs. Sandiganbayan, can be applied not only to those affected by RA 10951, but also to those offenses whose penalties have been reduced by any other law.

To end its beautiful decision, the Supreme Court even gave this reminder:

“On a final note, judges, public prosecutors, public attorneys, private counsels, and such other officers of the law are hereby advised to similarly apply the provisions of RA No. 10951 whenever it is, by reason of justice and equity, called for by the facts of each case. Hence, said recent legislation shall find application in cases where the imposable penalties of the affected crimes such as theft, qualified theft, estafa, robbery with force upon things, malicious mischief, malversation, and such other crimes, the penalty of which is dependent upon the value of the object in consideration thereof, have been reduced, as in the case at hand, taking into consideration the presence of existing circumstances attending its commission. For as long as it is favorable to the accused, said recent legislation shall find application regardless of whether its effectivity comes after the time when the judgment of conviction is rendered and even if service of sentence has already begun. The accused, in these applicable instances, shall be entitled to the benefits of the new law warranting him to serve a lesser sentence, or to his release, if he has already begun serving his previous sentence, and said service already accomplishes the term of the modified sentence. In the latter case, moreover, the Court, in the interest of justice and expediency, further directs the appropriate filing of an action before the Court that seeks the reopening of the case rather than an original petition filed for a similar purpose.”

 

(Gregorio Miguel Pallugna is a lawyer based in Cagayan de Oro.)

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