Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Verzosa vs. Contreras [A.M. No. MTJ-06-1636 March 12, 2007]

Facts: Julio B. Verzosa charged Judge Manuel E. Contreras of the Municipal Trial Court (MTC), Ocampo, Camarines Sur with Grave Abuse of Authority, Grave Misconduct (Harassment and Oppression), and Violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, relative to Criminal Case No. 2071, entitled "People of the Philippines v. Rodrigo E. Candelaria." 

Verzosa alleges that he is a forest ranger of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Protected Area Office. While conducting surveillance on treasure hunting activities in Mt. Isarog Natural Park, Ocampo, Camarines Sur, he and his co-forest rangers discovered an open pit left in damaged condition, allegedly in violation of Republic Act No. 7586. They likewise found and confiscated in favor of the Government two metal chains used to overturn huge stones in the treasure hunting site. He found out later that the alleged treasure hunters were led by a certain Jose Credo (Credo) a.k.a. "Labaw" and Basilio Sumalde (Sumalde) a.k.a. "Moren". The Executive Director of the DENR Region V Office thereafter ordered Verzosa to continue monitoring the said treasure hunting site. Because of his involvement in the treasure hunting activities and on the basis of the testimony of Credo, he was implicated as an accessory in Criminal Case No. 2071 against Rodrigo Candelaria (Candelaria), et al. for robbery. The said case arose from the alleged information relayed by Judge Contreras to the Philippine National Police (PNP) Officers of Ocampo, Camarines Sur which led to the arrest of the principal accused. Judge Contreras did not inhibit himself from conducting the preliminary investigation despite his proven bias against all of the accused, in apparent violation of the guiding principles of Judicial Ethics and Responsibilities. Verzosa was not among the persons on board the truck when the same was apprehended by members of the PNP. On the basis of the affidavit executed by Credo, Judge Contreras hastily issued an order for Verzosa's arrest. After the information reducing the charge from robbery to simple theft was filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 32, Pili, Camarines Sur, Judge Nilo Malanyaon, in an Order dated September 13, 2004 dismissed the case due to lack of probable cause. Judge Contreras is the mastermind behind the treasure hunting activities in Ocampo, Camarines Sur and the robbery case for which complainant was implicated as an accessory was a way of harassing anybody who opposes the activities. 

In his Comment Judge Contreras contends that while at Mt. Isarog, he received an information that Candelaria, known confidant of the personnel of the DENR and by the CARE Philippines, was looting by dismantling the tower antennae of the Philippine Long Distance and Telephone Company (PLDT) used as a relay station but already inoperational. He directed the police of Ocampo, Camarines Sur to investigate the looting of the steel trusses and bars of the PLDT Tower. The second time that he went on mountain hiking at Tinablanan River on April 18, 2004, he was again informed that the steel trusses and bars of the PLDT Tower were already being loaded in a truck bound for the junkshop in Naga City. He then immediately called the PNP Regional Intelligence Group and in a checkpoint set up by the police, the truck was apprehended with Candelaria and several men aboard. 

Issue: WHETHER OR NOT JUDGE CONTRERAS SHOULD BE SANCTIONED FOR VIOLATION OF CANON 3 OF THE NEW CODE OF JUDICIAL CONDUCT FOR THE PHILIPPINE JUDICIARY. 

Held: YES. Preliminary investigation is an inquiry or proceeding to determine whether there is sufficient ground to engender a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and the respondent is probably guilty thereof, and should be held for trial. 

The issue of whether a judge should voluntarily inhibit himself is addressed to his sound discretion pursuant to paragraph 2 of Section 1, Rule 137, Rules of Court, which provides that a judge may, in the exercise of his sound discretion, disqualify himself from sitting in a case, for a just or valid reason other than those mentioned in the first paragraph. 

However, respondent failed to consider the proscription under Rule 

3.12(a) of Canon 3, Code of Judicial Conduct, to wit: 

Rule 3.12. - A judge should take no part in a proceeding where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned. These cases include, among others, proceedings where: 

(a) the judge has personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding. 

In Oktubre v. Velasco, citing Perez v. Suller, the court held that the rule on disqualification of judges under Rule 3.12 and Section 1, Rule 137 - 

[S]tems from the principle that no judge should preside in a case in which he is not wholly free, disinterested, impartial and independent. A Judge should not handle a case in which he might be perceived to be susceptible to bias and partiality. The rule is intended to preserve the people’s faith and confidence in the courts of justice. 

True, a judge should possess proficiency in law so that he can competently construe and enforce the law. However, it is more important that he should act and behave in such a manner that the parties before him have confidence in his impartiality. Indeed, even conduct that gives rise to the mere appearance of partiality is proscribed. 

Records reveal that Judge Contreras had prior knowledge of the looting and dismantling at the PLDT Tower in Ocampo, Camarines Sur and he was instrumental in the apprehension of the robbers. Judge Contreras should have been aware of the impropriety of conducting the preliminary investigation considering that Rule 3.12(a), Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct enjoins a judge from taking part in proceedings where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Judge Contreras ignored said rule, warranting disciplinary sanction from this Court. 

Judge Contreras's averment that prior knowledge of the commission of a crime is not a mandatory ground for the first level court judge to recuse himself from conducting preliminary investigation, holds no water. As a judge, respondent must keep himself abreast with the law. He should have known that it is well entrenched in the Code of Judicial Conduct, prevailing at that time, that personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding disqualifies him from taking part in such proceeding as the same would necessarily spawn a perception that he is bias and impartial. It is of no moment that the finding of probable cause was sustained by the provincial prosecutor. What is of paramount importance is the perceived bias and impartiality by the complainant against respondent in his conduct of the preliminary investigation due to respondent's prior knowledge of the looting at the PLDT Tower, respondent being instrumental in the apprehension of the robbers. 

Although Judge Contreras should have inhibited himself from conducting the preliminary investigation, it did not render as void the act of Judge Contreras in issuing a warrant of arrest. He acted within the bounds of the then existing Section 6(b), Rule 112 of the Rules of Court which provides, inter alia, that without waiting for the conclusion of the investigation, the judge may issue a warrant of arrest if he finds after an examination in writing and under oath of the complainant and his witnesses in the form of searching questions and answers, that a probable cause exists and that there is a necessity of placing the respondent under immediate custody in order not to frustrate the ends of justice. 

The OCA rightly observed that Judge Contreras followed the letter of the existing Rule, when, prior to the issuance of warrant of arrest against Verzosa, Judge Contreras personally conducted preliminary examination in the form of searching questions and answers on witness Credo. The purpose of issuing the warrant of arrest was to place the r accused under immediate custody in order not to frustrate the ends of justice. Whether it is necessary to place the accused in custody is left to the judge’s sound judgment. 

In Lumbos v. Baliguat, the court held that as a matter of policy, the acts of a judge in his judicial capacity are not subject to disciplinary action. He cannot be subjected to liability - civil, criminal, or administrative - for any of his official acts, no matter how erroneous, as long as he acts in good faith.1 To hold, otherwise, would be to render judicial office untenable, for no one called upon to try the facts or interpret the law in the process of administering justice can be infallible in his judgment. An inquiry into the administrative liability of a judge may be resorted to only after the available remedies have been exhausted and decided with finality. For until there is a final declaration by the appellate court that the challenged order or judgment is manifestly erroneous, there will be no basis to conclude whether respondent is administratively liable.The Court has to be shown acts or conduct of the judge clearly indicative of arbitrariness or prejudice before the latter can be branded the stigma of being biased and partial. Thus, not every error or mistake that a judge commits in the performance of his duties renders him liable, unless he is shown to have acted in bad faith or with deliberate intent to do an injustice. Good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations are sufficient defenses in which a judge x x x can find refuge.

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