G.R. No. 166315             December 14, 2006
ALFREDO SY for himself and as Attorney-in-Fact of GONZALO SY, VERONICA SY, ROSARIO SY, MANUEL SY and JOSE SEE, petitioners,
HON. SECRETARY OF JUSTICE, LEON MARIA MAGSAYSAY and ENGR. EMMANUEL LALIN, respondents
D E C I S I O N
This petition for review1 assails the May 17, 2004 Decision2 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 79877 which affirmed the July 26, 2002 Resolution3 of the Secretary of Justice dismissing petitioners' complaint against respondents for grave coercion. Also assailed is the October 7, 2004 Resolution4 denying petitioners' motion for reconsideration.
The facts are as follows:
The [petitioners] aver that sometime in 1985, Dolores F. Posadas, through respondent, Leon Maria F. Magsaysay, as her attorney-in-fact, filed an ejectment case against them to recover a parcel of land in Paco, Manila consisting of approximately 8,295 sq.m. Several structures stand on the land including their post-war built building which has served as their family residence with a small sari-sari store. The trial court thereafter ruled in favor of Dolores F. Posadas. On appeal, the Regional Trial Court affirmed the trial court's decision. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the latter court set aside the decision of the Regional Trial Court and dismissed the complaint.
However, during the pendency of the appeal in the Court of Appeals, respondent Leon Maria F. Magsaysay obtained from the office of the Building Official of Manila a Notice of Condemnation dated February 8, 1996.
In response, the [petitioners] caused the assessment of the structural soundness of their residence. Consequently, on February 20, 1996, a Certificate of Structural Inspection was issued by a licensed engineer, certifying to the general integrity of the structure which merely needed minor repairs.
In October, 1997, the [petitioners] received a letter from the Office of the Building Official informing them that respondent Leon Maria F. Magsaysay had requested for the condemnation of certain structures, including the structure owned by [petitioners]. The [petitioners] were directed to submit their Answer/Comment and supporting papers.
A scheduled ocular inspection of the property was deferred at the instance of [petitioners'] counsel. Subsequently, an order of demolition dated February 3, 1998 was issued by Manila Building Official Hermogenes B. Garcia, on the basis of a Resolution dated February 3, 1998 issued by a committee created to act on the letter dated October 13, 1997 of respondent Leon Maria Guerrero.
The [petitioners] filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the order with the Secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). The complainants also obtained a TRO enjoining the enforcement of the order of demolition.
In the morning of August 28, 1998, respondent Emmanuel T. Lalin, together with several men with hammers, ropes, axes and crowbars, arrived at the complainants' residence and over their protests, demolished the building which served as their family residence and sari-sari store. The [petitioners] contend that the respondents' act of demolishing their building without any legal authority to do so is an act of grave coercion, punishable under Article 286 of the Revised Penal Code.
On the other hand, respondent Leon Ma. Magsaysay, in his counter affidavit, avers that he is one of the co-owners of the land located at the corner of Pedro Gil and A. Isip Sts., Paco, Manila as evidenced by TCT Nos. 216323 and 216327. He further avers that the demolition of the [petitioners'] structure was based on the lawful order of the City Building Official of Manila and affirmed by the DPWH.
Respondent Civil Engineer Emmanuel T. La[l]in, for his part, also avers that the demolition was undertaken pursuant to a duly-issued demolition order and that he was only hired by respondent Leon Maria Magsaysay to implement the same.5
The City Prosecutor of Manila dismissed the complaint for grave coercion for lack of merit. Hence, petitioners appealed to the Secretary of Justice but same was denied, finding that the demolition was carried out pursuant to a duly issued demolition order.
Petitioners filed a petition for certiorari before the Court of Appeals which denied the petition for lack of merit.
Petitioners' motion for reconsideration was likewise denied hence this petition for review based on the following grounds:6
THE FINDINGS OF THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ARE MERE CONCLUSIONS THAT ARE PATENTLY CONTRARY TO THE EVIDENCE ON RECORD.
THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS MANIFESTLY OVERLOOKED CERTAIN RELEVANT AND UNDISPUTED FACTS THAT, IF PROPERLY CONSIDERED, WOULD JUSTIFY A DIFFERENT CONCLUSION.
THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS HAS DECIDED QUESTIONS OF SUBSTANCE WITHOUT DELVING INTO THE RECORDS OF THE CASE, THUS WITHOUT FACTUAL AND LEGAL BASIS.
Petitioners alleged that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause for the filing of an information for grave coercion against respondents and that the Secretary of Justice gravely abused his discretion in holding otherwise.
Respondents argued that the determination of probable cause during preliminary investigation is an executive function, the correctness of which is a matter that the courts may not be compelled to pass upon. At any rate, they claim that the Secretary of Justice did not abuse his discretion in finding that the complaint for grave coercion is without merit.
The issue for resolution is whether there is probable cause for the filing of an information against respondents Magsaysay and Lalin for the offense of grave coercion.
The petition is meritorious.
Probable cause, for purposes of filing a criminal information, has been defined as such facts as are sufficient to engender a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and that respondent is probably guilty thereof.7 In Villanueva v. Secretary of Justice,8 we held:
It is such a state of facts in the mind of the prosecutor as would lead a person of ordinary caution and prudence to believe or entertain an honest or strong suspicion that a thing is so. The term does not mean "actual or positive cause;" nor does it import absolute certainty. It is merely based on opinion and reasonable belief. Thus, a finding of probable cause does not require an inquiry into whether there is sufficient evidence to procure a conviction. It is enough that it is believed that the act or omission complained of constitutes the offense charged. Precisely, there is a trial for the reception of evidence of the prosecution in support of the charge.
In the instant case, we find that the acts complained of are sufficient to sustain a finding of probable cause. The elements of grave coercion under Article 286 of the Revised Penal Code are as follows: 1) that a person is prevented by another from doing something not prohibited by law, or compelled to do something against his will, be it right or wrong; 2) that the prevention or compulsion is effected by violence, threats or intimidation; and 3) that the person who restrains the will and liberty of another has no right to do so, or in other words, that the restraint is not made under authority of law or in the exercise of any lawful right.9
It is undisputed that on August 28, 1998, respondents, together with several men armed with hammers, ropes, axes, crowbars and other tools arrived at the petitioners' residence and ordered them to vacate the building because they were going to demolish it.10 Petitioners tried to stop respondents from proceeding with the demolition but their pleas went unheeded. Intimidated by respondents and their demolition team, petitioners were prevented from peacefully occupying their residence and were compelled to leave against their will. Thus, respondents succeeded in implementing the demolition while petitioners watched helplessly as their building was torn down. From the facts alleged in the complaint, as well as the evidence presented in support thereof, there is prima facie showing that respondents did not act under authority of law or in the exercise of any lawful right.
Respondent Magsaysay claimed that the demolition was carried out by the Office of the Building Official, which is tasked to implement the National Building Code.11 We note, however, that respondent Lalin admitted in his Counter-Affidavit that he was hired by Magsaysay to implement the Demolition Order.12 The building officials made manifestations before the trial court in Civil Case No. 98-87513 that they were not aware of the demolition and that respondent Lalin is not connected with their office. They also denied conspiring with respondent Magsaysay in effecting the demolition.
Likewise, the Office of the Building Official issued an Order13 dated August 28, 1998 directing respondent Magsaysay to desist from proceeding with the demolition. On the same date, it also issued a Notice14 advising respondent Lalin to stop the demolition for failing to comply with the 5-day prior notice requirement and considering that the demolition was being effected within the 15-day reglementary period for appeal. In another Order dated September 10, 1998,15 the Office of the Building Official declared that the demolition was hastily done and in contravention of the terms and conditions of the Demolition Order.16
Indeed, while respondents claim to have acted under authority of law in compelling petitioners to vacate the subject property and effecting the demolition, the documentary evidence show otherwise. From the records, it is clear that a prima facie case for grave coercion exists and that there is sufficient ground to sustain a finding of probable cause which needs only to rest on evidence showing that, more likely than not, a crime has been committed and that it was committed by the accused.17 Nevertheless, respondents may disprove petitioners' charges but such matters may only be determined in a full-blown trial on the merits where the presence or absence of the elements of the crime may be thoroughly passed upon.18
While it is this Court's general policy not to interfere in the conduct of preliminary investigations, leaving the investigating officers sufficient discretion to determine probable cause, courts are nevertheless empowered to substitute their judgment for that of the Secretary of Justice when the same was rendered without or in excess of authority.19
In the instant case, the dismissal of the complaint despite sufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause clearly constitutes grave error, thus warranting a reversal.
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the petition is GRANTED. The May 17, 2004 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 79877 affirming the July 26, 2002 Resolution of the Secretary of Justice; and its October 7, 2004 Resolution denying petitioners' motion for reconsideration, are REVERSED AND SET ASIDE. The City Prosecutor of Manila is ORDERED to file an information for the offense of Grave Coercion under Article 286 of the Revised Penal Code against respondents Leon Maria F. Magsaysay and Emmanuel T. Lalin.
Austria-Martinez, Callejo Sr., and Chico-Nazario, JJ., concur.
Panganiban, C.J., Retired as of December 7, 2006
1 Rollo, pp. 25-45.
2 Id. at 159-163. Penned by Associate Justice Eugenio S. Labitoria and concurred in by Associate Justices Jose L. Sabio, Jr. and Hakim S. Abdulwahid.
3 Id. at 132-135. Penned for the Secretary of Justice by then Undersecretary, and now Ombudsman, Merceditas N. Gutierrez.
4 Id. at 180-181.
5 Id. at 132-133; as summarized in the Resolution dated July 26, 2002 of the Secretary of Justice.
6 Id. at 32.
7 Sarigumba v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. Nos. 154239-41, February 16, 2005, 451 SCRA 533, 550.
8 G.R. No. 162187, November 18, 2005, 475 SCRA 495, 511.
9 People v. Astorga, 347 Phil. 701, 720 (1997).
10 Rollo, p. 160.
11 Id. at 110.
12 Id. at 113.
13 Id. at 100.
14 Id. at 101.
15 Id. at 102.
16 Parenthetically, it appears that the Office of the Building Official was mistaken as regards the date of demolition which was stated as August 27, 1998 in the Order. The records clearly show that the demolition was conducted on August 28, 1998.
17 Okabe v. Gutierrez, G.R. No. 150185, May 27, 2004, 429 SCRA 685, 706.
18 Andres v. Cuevas, G.R. No. 150869, June 9, 2005, 460 SCRA 38, 52.
19 Filadams Pharma Inc. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 132422, March 30, 2004, 426 SCRA 460, 470.
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