Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

FIRST DIVISION

G.R. No. 148190             August 16, 2004

JESSIE DELA CRUZ, petitioner,
vs.
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES and THE COURT OF APPEALS, respondents.


D E C I S I O N


QUISUMBING, J.:

In its September 10, 1998, Decision1 in Criminal Case No. Br. 19-1134, the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Cauayan, Isabela, Branch 19, adjudged petitioner Jessie dela Cruz and her co-accused Oscar Galvizo2 guilty of violating Presidential Decree No. 583,3 as amended. The judgment sentencing them to imprisonment of eight (8) years and one (1) day as minimum to ten (10) years of prision mayor as maximum was affirmed on August 7, 2000, by the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR No. 22637. Petitioner now seeks the reversal of the Court of Appeals' Decision,4 as well as the Resolution denying the motion for reconsideration.

The factual antecedents of this case, as summarized by the Court of Appeals, are as follows:

Claro Ignacio was the owner of a parcel of irrigated riceland with an area of around three hectares situated in Barangay Buyon, San Mateo, Isabela. On June 6, 1976, Ignacio entered into a leasehold contract over the land with Valentin5 Sarmiento. As lessee, Valentin bound himself to pay Claro 45 cavans of palay every cropping. Valentin's only son, Julian "Bugtong" Sarmiento, assisted him in tilling the land.

Upon Valentin's death in 1981, Julian Sarmiento succeeded to the leasehold. Meanwhile, Claro migrated to the U.S.A. and his daughter, herein petitioner Jessie dela Cruz, continued collecting rent from Sarmiento until 1991, when dela Cruz refused to accept any more rent.

On May 28, 1996, one Norberto de Guzman informed Sarmiento that someone had entered his land. Sarmiento went to the farm, saw and heard petitioner and Oscar Galvizo giving instructions to some laborers who were armed with bolos locally known as "tabas." Sarmiento reported the incident to Barangay Captain Charlie Bartolome, who with other barangay officials, proceeded to the farm the next day. Sarmiento was then advised to report the matter to higher authorities.

On May 31, 1996, Sarmiento filed Criminal Case No. 5664 with the Municipal Trial Court of San Mateo, Isabela, charging petitioner and a "John Doe" with violation of P.D. No. 583.

On June 3, 1996, Sarmiento also filed a Complaint with the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB) against petitioner to restrain her from disturbing his possession of the subject property. The administrative case was docketed as DARAB Case No. II-571-ISA '96.6

Petitioner, for her part, filed with the RTC of Cauayan, Isabela, on June 4, 1996, a case against Sarmiento for declaratory relief, recovery of possession, collection of rentals, irrigation fees, damages, and injunction with prayer for temporary restraining order, docketed as Special Civil Case No. Br. 20-66. At the pre-trial conference in the said civil suit, the parties made the following stipulation of facts:

a) That the father of the defendant Vicente Sarmiento was a tenant of the land in question with an area of 3.5 hectares until his death;

b) That after the death of Vicente Sarmiento, the defendant Julian Sarmiento cultivated the land in question;

c) That defendant delivered the owner's share but the plaintiffs refused to receive so defendant deposited the money with the bank. Through counsel, plaintiffs withdrew the P91,000.00.7

On June 28, 1996, the criminal complaint before the MTC was dismissed as it had no jurisdiction. Sarmiento subsequently filed before the RTC, a new case for violation of the same P.D. No. 583, this time including Oscar Galvizo as another accused. The indictment in said case, docketed as Criminal Case No. 19-1134, reads:

That on or about the 28th day of May 1996, in the municipality of San Mateo, province of Isabela, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the accused Jessie dela Cruz, representing Claro Ignacio who is the landlord of tenant/farmer Julian Sarmiento, together with Oscar Galvi[z]o and several Does, whose identification are still to be determined, conspiring, confederating together and helping one another, by means of force, scheme, strategy and intimidation, did then and there, willfully, unlawfully and feloniously eject, exclude, remove and oust and cause the ouster, exclusion, removal and ejectment of the said tenant/farmer, Julian Sarmiento from his landholding over a parcel of land containing an area of 30,000.00 square meters and belonging to the said Claro Ignacio situated at Brgy. Buyon, in said municipality, to the damage and prejudice of the said Julian Sarmiento.

CONTRARY TO LAW.8

When arraigned, petitioner and Galvizo, assisted by counsel de parte, pleaded not guilty to the charge.

At the trial, Sarmiento's testimony on the alleged entry made by petitioner into the subject property was corroborated by Modesto Agpaoa, a former barangay kagawad of Tandul, Cabatuan, Isabela, and Rey Galindez, son-in-law of Sarmiento.

In her defense, petitioner averred that despite repeated demands, from April 1992 to 1996, Sarmiento continuously failed to pay his lease rentals for about nine croppings. Petitioner's lawyer sent him a demand letter, but got no reply. She went to his home, but he would not face her. Eventually, Sarmiento verbally agreed that if he again does not pay the rent due on April 1996, she would repossess the land. Since Sarmiento made no payments from May 1996 to date, she took over the land. She admitted being at the farm on May 28, 1996, to supervise her farm helpers and laborers, but denied employing force, intimidation and coercion to eject Sarmiento. According to her, Sarmiento was even there on June 2 or 3, 1996, watching her laborers planting, but nary a protest came from him.

For his part, petitioner's co-accused, Galvizo, declared that dela Cruz did inform him that the land was contested because Sarmiento had not paid rent. Galvizo said that sometime in May 1996 at about 8:30 a.m., he visited dela Cruz at her residence in Tandul, Cabatuan, Isabela. On dela Cruz's invitation, they went to the farm, which at that time was being tilled by her farm helpers. He left after three hours.

On September 10, 1998, the RTC adjudged petitioner and Galvizo guilty of unlawfully dispossessing Sarmiento of the land. The trial court ruled:

WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing considerations and finding both accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged in the information, judgment is hereby rendered sentencing them to suffer an imprisonment of eight (8) years and one (1) day as minimum to ten (10) years of prision mayor as maximum, and further ordering them, jointly and severally, to vacate the land in question and to deliver the possession thereof to Julian alias Bugtong Sarmiento.

Costs against the accused.

SO ORDERED.9

Aggrieved, petitioner and Galvizo filed an appeal, docketed as CA-G.R. CR No. 22637, with the Court of Appeals.

On August 7, 2000, the appellate court upheld the trial court's judgment in toto.10 The motion for reconsideration having been denied in the appellate court's Resolution of May 28, 2001,11 petitioner filed the instant appeal based on the following assigned errors:

I.

RESPONDENT COURT OF APPEALS COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION IN RULING THAT PETITIONER JESSIE DELA CRUZ IS GUILTY OF VIOLATION OF SECTION 4 OF p.d. no. 583 as amended by P.D. NO. 815, IN THE ABSENCE OF PROOF BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT;

II.

RESPONDENT COURT OF APPEALS COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION IN RULING THAT THERE WAS CONSPIRACY UNDER THE PREMISES;

III.

ASSUMING ARGUENDO THAT PETITIONER IS GUILTY OF THE OFFENSE CHARGED, RESPONDENT COURT OF APPEALS COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION IN IMPOSING THE PENALTY OF EIGHT (8) YEARS AND ONE (1) DAY AS MINIMUM TO TEN (10) YEARS OF PRISION MAYOR AS MAXIMUM DESPITE THE ABSENCE OF ANY AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCE.12

The issues for our resolution are (1) the sufficiency of the evidence to prove petitioner's guilt with moral certainty; (2) the sufficiency of proof to establish conspiracy between petitioner and Galvizo; and (3) the correctness of the penalty.

On the issue of sufficiency of evidence, petitioner contends that the appellate court erred in finding her guilty of the crime charged considering that the element of stealth, threat or intimidation was not proven. Petitioner also maintains that she is not guilty of unlawfully dispossessing Sarmiento of the land because the oral agreement between the two of them authorized her to recover possession of the land if Sarmiento continues to fail to pay rent.

For the respondent, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) counters that Sarmiento as a tenant-farmer is entitled to security of tenure under Section 713 of Republic Act No. 3844.14 According to the OSG, petitioner breached Sarmiento's legal rights when she ejected him from the land. The OSG asks this Court to affirm in toto the assailed decision of the Court of Appeals.15

We sustain the conviction.

By express provision of Rep. Act No. 3844, the law governing leasehold relations, the leasehold relation between the original agricultural tenant, Valentin Sarmiento, and the agricultural lessor, Claro Ignacio, did not cease to exist when Valentin died. Section 916 of this law substituted into the leasehold relation Julian Sarmiento, the only direct descendant capable of personally cultivating the land. As tenant, Julian Sarmiento had the right to security of tenure under Section 7.17 This right entitled him to continue working on his landholding until the leasehold relation is terminated or until his eviction is authorized by the DARAB in a judgment that is final and executory. Only in the instances stated in Section 818 and 2819 of the law and Article 127520 of the New Civil Code (merger of the character of the lessor and the lessee) can the leasehold relation be terminated, and only through a final and executory order of the DARAB authorizing dispossession on the grounds specified under Section 3621 may the lessor eject the tenant.

Petitioner has failed to prove adequately any ground for which the leasehold relation can be terminated. That Julian Sarmiento immediately reported to barangay officials petitioner's intrusion into his landholding, charged petitioner with violation of P.D. No. 583 only three days after the intrusion, and commenced a forcible entry case in the DARAB three days after filing the charge negates petitioner's claim of voluntary surrender. Thus, by admittedly re-possessing the land on May 28, 1996, without a final and executory judgment from the DARAB authorizing the dispossession,22 during the existence of the leasehold relation, petitioner violated Julian Sarmiento's right to security of tenure. She is liable under Section 4, P.D. No. 583, which provides,

SEC. 4. Subject to the studies on zoning of the Human Settlements Commission and unless previously authorized by the Secretary of Agrarian Reform, any landowner, landholder, agricultural-lessor or anybody acting for and in their behalf, who converts his tenanted land primarily devoted to rice and corn into any non-agricultural use or to the production of any other crop as a means to avoid the application of the land reform laws or decrees to his landholdings and to dispossess his tenant-farmers of the land tilled by them shall, upon conviction, suffer the penalty of prision mayor or a fine ranging from P5,000.00 to P10,000.00, or both, at the discretion of the court.

The same penalty shall be imposed on a landowner, landholder, agricultural-lessor, or anybody acting for and in their behalf, who by any other act, scheme or strategy shall eject, exclude, remove or oust and/or cause the ouster, exclusion, removal or ejectment of a tenant-farmer from his farmholding in contravention of decrees, laws, and other orders on land reform.23

The alleged oral agreement between petitioner and Sarmiento, even if it were proven, cannot justify petitioner's action. Not only is an agreement limiting the period of tenancy prejudicial to the tenant's right to security of tenure, and therefore expressly prohibited by Section 1624 of Rep. Act No. 3844, Section 3125 in relation to Section 36 also makes unlawful any act of dispossession based on those agreements. As we held in Datu v. Hon. Cabañgon,26 Section 49 of the Agricultural Tenancy Act,27 from which the present provisions of Section 36 of Rep. Act No. 3844 were taken, does not allow the parties to stipulate at what future time the tenant will leave or surrender the landholding he cultivates.

That the tenant, Julian Sarmiento, has not been paying rentals for nine croppings also does not exonerate petitioner, contrary to her contentions. Nonpayment of rentals only entitles a lessor to seek a judgment of eviction against the tenant. Before dispossession based on nonpayment of rentals can be validly made, it is essential that (1) the fact of nonpayment be first established after hearing, and that (2) the judgment authorizing dispossession under that ground has become final and executory.28 The tenant's failure to pay rentals does not, of itself, give the lessor any right to eject the tenant upon the lessor's own volition as it is clear from Sections 31 and 36, the idea being to give to tenants some security of tenure of their landholding so that they may enjoy the same peacefully for their benefit and that of their family. The language of the provisions of Sections 31 and 36 is definite and unmistakable as to the spirit, intent and purpose of the lawmakers that under no circumstance may a tenant or lessee be deprived or dispossessed of his landholding without a final and executory judgment of ejectment rendered after proper hearing where, understandably, the tenant or lessee has been given an opportunity to be heard.29

Further, use of violence, threat, force, or intimidation is not an element of the crime, contrary to petitioner's contention. Section 4 of P.D. No. 583, penalizes any unlawful ouster of a tenant-farmer by any act, scheme or strategy in contravention of decrees, laws, and other orders on land reform. Hence, it is sufficient for conviction if the prosecution establishes, as it has in this case (1) the existence of a leasehold relationship; (2) the fact of dispossession of the tenant by the landowner, landholder, agricultural-lessor, or anybody acting in their behalf; and (3) the absence of a final and executory judgment authorizing such dispossession.

Petitioner's argument that she must be acquitted in view of the DARAB's finding that Sarmiento forfeited his security of tenure by his failure to pay rent is untenable. The DARAB issued its decision on September 3, 1998, while the eviction took place on May 28, 1996. The DARAB decision could not cure the criminal liability that already attached upon the actual unauthorized dispossession. In Valino v. Muñoz,30 we declared that even a subsequent or independent finding of the Court of Agrarian Relations (now the DARAB)31 that the ejectment may be authorized under Section 36 cannot cure the criminal liability that already attaches upon the actual dispossession without previous court authority.

All told, we find that the Court of Appeals committed no reversible error when it sustained the RTC and found petitioner and Galvizo liable for violation of P.D. No. 583.

On the issue of conspiracy, the evidence on record shows that petitioner and Galvizo conspired to oust Sarmiento from his landholding. No less than two witnesses corroborated Sarmiento's account. Prosecution witness Rey Galindez testified that he saw Galvizo working on the land when he went there to spray the seedbeds. Another witness, Modesto Agpaoa, attested that upon receiving Sarmiento's complaint, barangay officials and he went to the premises the following day, and found petitioner and Galvizo in the sublot along with other unidentified men. From these testimonies, we are convinced that Galvizo and petitioner had planned the ejectment of Sarmiento. The Court of Appeals did not err in concluding that petitioner and Galvizo were co-conspirators against Sarmiento.

Anent the penalty, the trial court sentenced petitioner and Galvizo to suffer imprisonment of eight (8) years and one (1) day of prision mayor as a minimum to ten (10) years of prision mayor as maximum. Said penalty was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, as it conforms with Section 4 of P.D. No. 583, which provides for the penalty of prision mayor or a fine ranging from P5,000 to P10,000, or both, at the discretion of the Court.

The law provides that an illegal ouster of a tenant-farmer may be penalized by imprisonment or a fine or both. Under the facts of this case, we find the penalty of imprisonment too harsh. Petitioner and Galvizo do not have any record of prior conviction, we are convinced that in lieu of imprisonment, a fine in the amount of P7,000 is appropriate following our pronouncement in Vaca v. Court of Appeals,32 to wit:

It would best serve the ends of criminal justice if in fixing the penalty within the range of discretion allowed by §1, par. 1, the same philosophy underlying the Indeterminate Sentence Law is observed, namely, that of redeeming valuable human material and preventing unnecessary deprivation of personal liberty and economic usefulness with due regard to the protection of the social order....

Conformably with Section 11(a)33 of Rule 122 of the Rules of Court, petitioner's co-accused, Oscar Galvizo, shall likewise pay a fine of P7,000 in lieu of imprisonment.

WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED and the Decision dated August 7, 2000 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR No. 22637, as well as its Resolution dated May 28, 2001, is hereby AFFIRMED with the MODIFICATION that in lieu of imprisonment, JESSIE DELA CRUZ and OSCAR GALVIZO shall instead PAY a fine of P7,000.00 each.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., (Chairman), Ynares-Santiago, Carpio, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.


Footnotes

1 Records, pp. 134-141.

2 "Calvizo" or "Galviso" in some parts of the records.

3 Entitled "Prescribing Penalties for the Unlawful Ejectment, Exclusion, Removal, or Ouster of Tenant-Farmers from Their Farmholdings."

4 Rollo, pp. 45-59. Penned by Associate Justice Delilah Vidallon-Magtolis, with Associate Justices Eloy R. Bello, Jr., and Elvi John S. Asuncion concurring.

5 Also referred to as "Vicente" in the Pre-Trial Order, marked as Exh. "H."

6 CA Rollo, pp. 50-52. Later re-docketed as DARAB Case No. II-1459-ISA '98 per decision dated September 3, 1998.

7 Exh. "H," Pre-Trial Order.

8 CA Rollo, p. 7.

9 Rollo, pp. 70-71.

10 CA Rollo, p. 201.

11 Id. at 302-303.

12 Rollo, p. 16.

13 Sec. 7. Tenure of Agricultural Leasehold Relation.—The agricultural leasehold relation once established shall confer upon the agricultural lessee the right to continue working on the landholding until such leasehold relation is extinguished. The agricultural lessee shall be entitled to security of tenure on his landholding and cannot be ejected therefrom unless authorized by the Court for causes herein provided.

14 Entitled "An Act to Ordain the Agricultural Land Reform Code and to Institute Land Reforms in the Philippines, Including the Abolition of Tenancy and the Channeling of Capital into Industry, Provide for the Necessary Implementing Agencies, Appropriate Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes."

15 Rollo, p. 192.

16 SEC. 9. Agricultural Leasehold Relation Not Extinguished by Death or Incapacity of the Parties.—In case of death or permanent incapacity of the agricultural lessee to work his landholding, the leasehold shall continue between the agricultural lessor and the person who can cultivate the landholding personally, chosen by the agricultural lessor within one month from such death or incapacity, from among the following: (a) the surviving spouse; (b) the eldest direct descendant by consanguinity; or (c) the next eldest descendant or descendants in the order of their age: Provided, That in case the death or permanent incapacity of the agricultural lessee occurs during the agricultural year, such choice shall be exercised at the end of that agricultural year: Provided, further, That in the event the agricultural lessor fails to exercise his choice within the periods herein provided, the priority shall be in accordance with the order herein established.

. . .

17 Supra, note 13.

18 SEC. 8. Extinguishment of Agricultural Leasehold Relation.—The agricultural leasehold relation established under this Code shall be extinguished by:

(1) Abandonment of the landholding without the knowledge of the agricultural lessor;

(2) Voluntary surrender of the landholding by the agricultural lessee, written notice of which shall be served three months in advance; or

(3) Absence of the persons under Section nine to succeed to the lessee, in the event of death or permanent incapacity of the lessee.

19 SEC. 28. Termination of Leasehold by Agricultural Lessee During Agricultural Year.—The agricultural lessee may terminate the leasehold during the agricultural year for any of the following causes:

(1) Cruel, inhuman or offensive treatment of the agricultural lessee or any member of his immediate farm household by the agricultural lessor or his representative with the knowledge and consent of the lessor;

(2) Noncompliance on the part of the agricultural lessor with any of the obligations imposed upon him by the provisions of this Code or by his contract with the agricultural lessee;

(3) Compulsion of the agricultural lessee or any member of his immediate farm household by the agricultural lessor to do any work or render any service not in any way connected with farm work or even without compulsion if no compensation is paid;

(4) Commission of a crime by the agricultural lessor or his representative against the agricultural lessee or any member of his immediate farm household; or

(5) Voluntary surrender due to circumstances more advantageous to him or his family.

20 ART. 1275. The obligation is extinguished from the time the characters of creditor and debtor are merged in the same person.

21 SEC. 36. Possession of Landholding; Exceptions.—Notwithstanding any agreement as to the period or future surrender of the land, an agricultural lessee shall continue in the enjoyment and possession of his landholding except when his dispossession has been authorized by the Court in a judgment that is final and executory if after due hearing it is shown that:

(1) The landholding is declared by the department head upon recommendation of the National Planning Commission to be suited for residential, commercial, industrial or some other urban purposes: Provided, That the agricultural lessee shall be entitled to disturbance compensation equivalent to five times the average of the gross harvests on his landholding during the last five preceding calendar years;

(2) The agricultural lessee failed to substantially comply with any of the terms and conditions of the contract or any of the provisions of this Code unless his failure is caused by fortuitous event or force majeure;

(3) The agricultural lessee planted crops or used the landholding for a purpose other than what had been previously agreed upon;

(4) The agricultural lessee failed to adopt proven farm practices as determined under paragraph 3 of Section twenty-nine;

(5) The land or other substantial permanent improvement thereon is substantially damaged or destroyed or has unreasonably deteriorated through the fault or negligence of the agricultural lessee;

(6) The agricultural lessee does not pay the lease rental when it falls due: Provided, That if the nonpayment of the rental shall be due to crop failure to the extent of seventy-five per centum as a result of a fortuitous event, the nonpayment shall not be a ground for dispossession, although the obligation to pay the rental due that particular crop is not thereby extinguished; or

(7) The lessee employed a sublessee on his landholding in violation of the terms of paragraph 2 of Section twenty-seven. [As amended by Rep. Act No. 6389.] Also, Alarcon v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 152085, 8 July 2003, 405 SCRA 440, 446.

22 TSN, 4 March 1998, pp. 17-18, 25-28.

23 As amended by P.D. No. 815.

24 SEC. 16. Nature and Continuity of Conditions of Leasehold Contract.—In the absence of any agreement as to the period, the terms and conditions of a leasehold contract shall continue until modified by the parties: Provided, That in no case shall any modification of its terms and conditions prejudice the right of the agricultural lessee to the security of his tenure on the landholding…. [Emphasis supplied.]

See Datu v. Cabañgon, No. L-14590, 25 May 1960, 108 Phil. 243, 247.

25 SEC. 31. Prohibitions to the Agricultural Lessor.—It shall be unlawful for the agricultural lessor:

(1) To dispossess the agricultural lessee of his landholding except upon authorization by the Court under Section thirty-six. Should the agricultural lessee be dispossessed of his landholding without authorization from the Court, the agricultural lessor shall be liable for damages suffered by the agricultural lessee in addition to the fine or imprisonment prescribed in this Code for unauthorized dispossession;

. . .

26 No. L-14590, 25 May 1960, 108 Phil. 243, 246-247.

27 Sec. 49. Ejectment of Tenant.—Notwithstanding any agreement or provision of law as to the period or future surrender of the land, in all cases where land devoted to any agricultural purpose is held under any system of tenancy, the tenant shall not be dispossessed of his holdings by the landholder except for any of the causes hereinafter enumerated and only after the same has been proved before and the dispossession is authorized by the court.

It shall likewise be unlawful for any third party to dispossess the tenant of his holding except by order of the Court. Any violation of this provision shall be penalized in accordance with section fifty-seven of this Act and/or under the general provisions of law applicable to the act committed. [As amended by Rep. Act No. 2263.]

28 Montemayor, II Labor, Agrarian and Social Legislation 313. Bernardo v. Court of Appeals, No. L-30821, 14 December 1988, 168 SCRA 439, 446.

29 Valino v. Muñoz, No. L-26151, 22 October 1970, 35 SCRA 413, 419-421.

30 Id. at 421.

31 Quismundo v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 95664, 13 September 1991, 201 SCRA 609, 613-614.

32 G.R. No. 131714, 16 November 1998, 298 SCRA 656, 664.

33 SEC. 11. Effect of appeal by any of several accused. –

(a) An appeal taken by one or more of several accused shall not affect those who did not appeal, except insofar as the judgment of the appellate court is favorable and applicable to the latter.


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