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475 PHIL. 568

SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 144332, June 10, 2004 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PETITIONER, VS. COURT OF APPEALS (ELEVENTH DIVISION), EFREN S. ALMUETE, JOHNNY ILA Y RAMEL AND JOEL LLOREN Y DELA CRUZ, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

CALLEJO, SR., J.:

This is a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court of the Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 49953 granting the petition for certiorari of the private respondents.

The Antecedents

Respondents Efren S. Almuete, Johnny Ila and Joel Lloren were charged with violating Presidential Decree No. 705, as amended, in the Regional Trial Court of Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, Branch 27, docketed as Criminal Case No. 2672. The accusatory portion reads:
That on or about the early morning of August 15, 1993, at night time purposely sought to better accomplish their end and facilitate the commission of their offense, at Barangay Uddiawan, Municipality of Solano, Province of Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, conspiring, confederating together and mutually helping each other, and with the use of motor vehicles, more particularly two six-by-six trucks bearing plate numbers BAW-150 and BBP-606, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously, with intent of gain, gather, collect, remove, possess, smuggle and transport three hundred fifty-seven pieces of sawn timber of various sizes of the common hardwood species with a total volume of four thousand seven hundred fifty-one (4,751) board feet valued at fifty-seven thousand and twelve pesos (P57,012.00), Philippine currency, plus imposable forest charges, surcharges and other penalties, without having first secured and obtained from the proper authorities the necessary permit and/or supporting legal documents as required under existing forestry laws, rules and regulations, to the damage and prejudice of the Republic of the Philippines in the aforesaid amount.

CONTRARY TO LAW.[2]
After due proceedings, the trial court set the promulgation of its decision on September 8, 1998. When the case was called, Atty. Rodolfo Lorenzo, the counsel of the respondents, informed the trial court that Almuete and Lloren were ill, and that Ila was not in court because he was not notified of the scheduled promulgation. The counsel presented to the court a medical certificate attesting to the illness of respondents Lloren and Almuete. The trial court found the absence of the respondents unjustified and proceeded with the promulgation of its decision, finding them guilty of the crime charged. The decretal portion of the decision reads:
WHEREFORE, finding the accused, namely, Efren S. Almuete, Johnny Ila y Ramel and Joel Lloren y dela Cruz GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 68, P.D. No. 705, as amended, they are each sentenced to suffer the penalty of 18 years, 2 months and 21 days of reclusion temporal as minimum period to 40 years of reclusion perpetua as maximum period. Costs against the said accused.

SO ORDERED.[3]
The court also cancelled the bail bonds of the respondents. The latter filed a motion for the reconsideration of the decision on the following grounds: (a) they were deprived of their right to be present at the promulgation of the trial court’s decision; (b) lack of factual and legal basis for their conviction of the crime charged; and, (c) the penalty imposed by the court was excessive. The respondents prayed, thus:
WHEREFORE, premises well considered, it is most respectfully prayed that the promulgation be set aside as being null and void and the bail posted by them reinstated. In the event that the Court refuses to set aside the promulgation that the Decision be reconsidered and order the acquittal of the accused; that in the event the Court denies the reconsideration that the accused be allowed to be free under their own bail and/or be required to post additional bail for their provisional liberty during the pendency of this case. Further, accused prays for other reliefs which are just and proper under the circumstances.[4]
On October 12, 1998, the trial court issued an Order denying the motion of the respondents for lack of merit.[5]

The respondents filed a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court with the Court of Appeals, docketed as CA-G.R. SP No. 49953. They, likewise, prayed for the issuance of a temporary restraining order and for the reversal of the trial court’s decision. The respondents claimed that the penalty of eighteen (18) years and two (2) months and twenty-one (21) days of reclusion temporal as minimum, to forty (40) years as maximum, was in excess of the maximum imposable penalty for violation of Article 309 of the Revised Penal Code. They claimed that the trial court erroneously applied Article 310 of the Revised Penal Code, and insisted that their absence at the scheduled promulgation of the decision was justified. The petitioners prayed that judgment be rendered in their favor, thus:
WHEREFORE, it is respectfully prayed:

a) That the promulgation of the decision be set aside as having been done with undue haste and, therefore, is void ab initio;

b) To declare the decision as null and void as the decision is not based on competent clear and convincing evidence;

c) That in the alternative that the decision be modified and/or amended in accordance with law;

d) That in the meantime, a temporary restraining order is prayed for to prevent further damage and injuries to the accused-petitioners;

e) To issue an injunction against the respondent judge pending the resolution of this case;

f) To restore the bail of the accused which have been ordered cancelled by respondent judge in the meanwhile that the case is pending.

Petitioners pray for other reliefs which are just and proper under the circumstances.[6]
On May 19, 2000, the Court of Appeals (CA) rendered judgment granting the petition. The appellate court ordered a re-promulgation of the decision of the trial court against Ila and Lloren, but acquitted petitioner Almuete, the head (deacon) of the Iglesia ni Cristo, on the ground that the prosecution failed to prove his guilt for the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. The decretal portion of the decision reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the present petition is hereby GRANTED. On the basis of the evidence on record, accused Efren S. Almuete should be, as he is hereby ACQUITTED of the charge against him.

The court a quo is ORDERED to re-promulgate the decision in the presence of the accused Ila and Lloren, duly assisted by counsel of their own choice, after notice and allow them to appeal. Let the complete records of this case be remanded to the court a quo.

SO ORDERED.[7]
Respondents Lloren and Ila filed a motion for the reconsideration of the decision of the appellate court, praying that they also be acquitted, on the ground that the prosecution failed to prove their guilt for the crime charged. The appellate court denied the said motion.

Aggrieved, the People of the Philippines now assails the decision of the CA. It contends that the appellate court acted beyond its jurisdiction when it acquitted respondent Almuete of the crime charged on a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court, and that it erred when it ordered a re-promulgation of the trial court’s decision.

In his comment on the petition, respondent Almuete asserts that the filing of the petition at bar would place him in double jeopardy; hence, the petition should be dismissed. He cites the ruling of this Court in Central Bank of the Philippines v. Court of Appeals[8] to buttress his stance. The respondent also asserts that in acquitting him of the crime charged, the appellate court acted within its jurisdiction because it merely acted on his plea for acquittal. It was, likewise, only proper for the appellate court to look into the merits of the trial court’s decision in his petition for certiorari, since the settled rule is that on appeal, the entire record of the case is open for review by the appellate court.

Respondents Lloren and Ila, for their part, contend that the appellate court did not err in ordering a re-promulgation of the RTC decision, given the appellate court’s findings and ratiocinations in its decision. By way of reply, the petitioner argues that since the CA acted without jurisdiction in acquitting respondent Almuete, its decision is null and void; as such, the respondent was never placed in first jeopardy.

The Issues

The issues for resolution are the following: (a) whether the CA acted in excess of its jurisdiction or without jurisdiction when it acquitted private respondent Almuete in a petition for certiorari for the nullification of the trial court’s decision; and, (b) whether the RTC acted with grave abuse of its jurisdiction amounting to excess or lack of jurisdiction when it promulgated its decision, even in the absence of the private respondents.

The Ruling of the Court

For a petition for certiorari or prohibition to be granted, it must set out and demonstrate, plainly and distinctly, all the facts essential to establish a right to a writ.[9] The petitioner must allege in his petition and establish facts to show that any other existing remedy is not speedy or adequate[10] and that (a) the writ is directed against a tribunal, board or officer exercising judicial or quasi-judicial functions; (b) such tribunal, board or officer has acted without or in excess of jurisdiction, or with grave abuse of discretion amounting to excess or lack of jurisdiction; and, (c) there is no appeal or any plain, speedy and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.[11]

The public respondent acts without jurisdiction if it does not have the legal power to determine the case; there is excess of jurisdiction where the respondent, being clothed with the power to determine the case, oversteps its authority as determined by law. There is grave abuse of discretion where the public respondent acts in a capricious, whimsical, arbitrary or despotic manner in the exercise of its judgment as to be said to be equivalent to lack of jurisdiction.[12] Mere abuse of discretion is not enough. A remedy is plain, speedy and adequate if it will promptly relieve the petitioner from the injurious effects of that judgment and the acts of the tribunal or inferior court.[13] A petition for certiorari cannot co-exist with an appeal or any other adequate remedy. The existence and the availability of the right to appeal are antithetical to the availment of the special civil action for certiorari. These two remedies are mutually exclusive.[14]

In a petition for certiorari, the jurisdiction of the court is narrow in scope. It is limited to resolving only errors of jurisdiction. It is not to stray at will and resolve questions or issues beyond its competence such as errors of judgment. Errors of judgment of the trial court are to be resolved by the appellate court in the appeal by and of error or via a petition for review on certiorari in this Court under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. Certiorari will issue only to correct errors of jurisdiction. It is not a remedy to correct errors of judgment.[15] An error of judgment is one in which the court may commit in the exercise of its jurisdiction, and which error is reversible only by an appeal. Error of jurisdiction is one where the act complained of was issued by the court without or in excess of jurisdiction and which error is correctible only by the extraordinary writ of certiorari.[16] Certiorari will not be issued to cure errors by the trial court in its appreciation of the evidence of the parties, and its conclusions anchored on the said findings and its conclusions of law.[17] As long as the court acts within its jurisdiction, any alleged errors committed in the exercise of its discretion will amount to nothing more than mere errors of judgment, correctible by an appeal or a petition for review under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.[18]

Whether or not the evidence adduced by the prosecution is sufficient to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt rests entirely within the sound discretion and judgment of the lower court.[19] In Joseph v. Villaluz,[20] we held that whether or not the evidence adduced by the prosecution has established beyond reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused cannot be resolved in a special civil action of certiorari.

In this case, the RTC rendered judgment finding all the accused, respondents herein, guilty of the crime charged based on the evidence on record and the law involved, and sentenced them to suffer the penalty of imprisonment as provided for in P.D. No. 705, in relation to Articles 304 and 305 of the Revised Penal Code. They had a plain, speedy and adequate remedy at law to overturn the decision as, in fact, they even filed a motion for reconsideration of the decision on its merits, and for the nullification of the promulgation of the said decision. Upon the trial court’s denial of their motion for reconsideration, the petitioners had the right to appeal, by writ of error, from the decision on its merits on questions of facts and of law. The appeal of the petitioners in due course was a plain, speedy and adequate remedy. In such appeal, the petitioners could question the findings of facts of the trial court, its conclusions based on the said findings, as well as the penalty imposed by the court. It bears stressing that an appeal in a criminal case throws the whole case open for review and that the appellate court can reverse any errors of the trial court, whether assigned or unassigned, found in its judgment.[21] However, instead of appealing the decision by writ of error, the respondents filed their petition for certiorari with the CA assailing the decision of the trial court on its merits. They questioned their conviction and the penalty imposed on them, alleging that the prosecution failed to prove their guilt for the crime charged, the evidence against them being merely hearsay and based on mere inferences. In fine, the respondents alleged mere errors of judgment of the trial court in their petition. It behooved the appellate court to have dismissed the petition, instead of giving it due course and granting it.

The CA reviewed the trial court’s assessment of the evidence on record, its findings of facts, and its conclusions based on the said findings. The CA forthwith concluded that the said evidence was utterly insufficient on which to anchor a judgment of conviction, and acquitted respondent Almuete of the crime charged.

The appellate court acted with grave abuse of its discretion when it ventured beyond the sphere of its authority and arrogated unto itself, in the certiorari proceedings, the authority to review perceived errors of the trial court in the exercise of its judgment and discretion, which are correctible only by appeal by writ of error. Consequently, the decision of the CA acquitting respondent Almuete of the crime charged is a nullity. If a court is authorized by statute to entertain jurisdiction in a particular case only, and undertakes to exercise the jurisdiction conferred in a case to which the statute has no application, the judgment rendered is void. The lack of statutory authority to make a particular judgment is akin to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.[22] In this case, the CA is authorized to entertain and resolve only errors of jurisdiction and not errors of judgment.

A void judgment has no legal and binding effect, force or efficacy for any purpose. In contemplation of law, it is non-existent.[23] It cannot impair or create rights; nor can any right be based on it. Thus, respondent Almuete cannot base his claim of double jeopardy on the appellate court’s decision.

On the second issue, the CA nullified the trial court’s promulgation of its decision, ratiocinating as follows:
This Court further finds the promulgation of the decision by the trial court on September 8, 1998 and the denial of the motion for reconsideration thereof on September 22, 1998 as being issued with grave abuse of discretion. The accused Almuete and Ila during the promulgation were not present as they were then sick. A medical certificate was issued to attest to their sickness. In the case of Lloren, he was not duly notified of the date of the promulgation.

Under Section 6, Rule 120 of the Rules of Court, the presence in person of the accused at the promulgation of judgment is MANDATORY in all cases except where the conviction is for a light offense (Florendo v. Court of Appeals, 239 SCRA 325 [1994]).

The accused were, therefore, denied their right to be present during the promulgation of the decision since they have not waived their rights thereto.[24]
In contrast to the curt ratiocinations of the CA, the trial court amply explained why it proceeded to promulgate its decision despite the presentation of a medical certificate by Ila and Almuete:
With respect to the first ground, the pertinent rule is Section 6, par. 3, Rule 120 of the Revised Rules of Court, properly quoted in the Opposition to the Motion for Reconsideration filed by Atty. Arthur P. Castillo, Special DENR Prosecutor.

It is clear from the said rule that if the accused failed to appear without justifiable cause, the judgment of conviction may be promulgated. The question, therefore, is, was the non-appearance of the accused during the promulgation of sentence justified or not?

It will be assumed that the accused were duly notified because (1) their counsel, Atty. Rodolfo Cornejo, appeared; and (2) Atty. Cornejo submitted medical certificates for accused Efren Almuete and Joel Lloren. Accused Johnny Ila did not appear anymore after arraignment. He was duly notified through accused Almuete. Atty. Cornejo moved for the cancellation of the promulgation of sentence averring that Almuete and Lloren were sick as evidenced by medical certificates. Atty. Arthur Castillo and Asst. Provincial Prosecutor Albert Castillo opposed the motion on the ground that the medical certificates were not verified.

Upon examining the medical certificates submitted, the Court decided by (sic) proceed with the promulgation of the sentence. Atty. Cornejo, defense counsel, moved that only the dispositive portion of the sentence be read; he did not move for the reconsideration of the denial of his motion to cancel promulgation. The Court directed the Court Interpreter to read the decision from that portion explaining the penalty being imposed up to the dispositive portion.

When the court examined the medical certificates of accused Almuete and Lloren before the promulgation of sentence, it noticed and could sense that the same were being used as a play to delay the promulgation.

Firstly, the medical certificates were not verified. Any person can produce such unverified medical certificate from any physician even when he is not sick or may even fake the same. Hence, the need to verify the certificate or place the physician under oath. This step will insure that the patient really appeared before the physician and that he was really sick of the ailment described therein.

Secondly, a reading of the medical certificate of accused Almuete would show that his alleged ailment was one that needed no bed rest and is natural to anyone who was about to be sentenced by court. Nowhere in said certificate is the statement that he should stay in bed. The medical certificate states “To Whom It May Concern: This is to certify that Mr. Efren Almuete consulted the undersigned due to stress, anxiety and some physiological disturbance. He is advised to take some tranquilizers and rest. Issued for general purpose.” It was signed by Dr. Ferdinand T. Tolentino. It is dated September 7, 1998, the day before the promulgation. If every accused who suffers the same ailment a day before the promulgation will be allowed to stay away from such promulgation, then no one will be sentenced as such condition is common among those who are about to be sentenced. It must bear emphasis that the medical certificate was dated a day before the actual promulgation. Had Almuete taken the advise of the physician, he would have been fit to appear the following day to hear the sentence. Moreover, the wordings of the certificate were such that one senses the reluctance of the physician to issue the certificate but had to do so out of consideration of friendship or insistence of the “patient.” Hence, when accused Almuete failed to appear to hear the promulgation of his sentence, his absence was unjustifiable.

With respect to Lloren, aside from the fact that his medical certificate was unverified, the same was not issued by a Government Physician; hence, unreliable. By actual practice, only government physicians, by virtue of their oath as civil service officials, are competent to examine persons and issue medical certificates which will be used by the government. Since the examination of Lloren was performed in a private medical clinic, it can be assumed that the physician, if the medical certificate is really genuine, is a private practitioner who is not a government physician.

As regards Johnny Ila, he did not justify his absence. Hence, promulgation could be validly made against him.

It is interesting to note that right after the promulgation of sentence to the accused on September 8, 1998, the Court cancelled the bail bonds put up by the accused and issued warrants of arrest against them in accordance with the above-mentioned rule. Almuete who was suffering from “stress, anxiety and some physiological disturbance” and Lloren who was suffering from “influenza” could not be found in their respective residence. From this evasion, it can be deduced that they did not appear because they wanted to know the tenor of the decision so that if it is adverse, they could dig deeper to hide. As a matter of fact, two days before the promulgation, Almuete was asking the tenor of the decision of the court from one of the stenographers who feigned ignorance. Up to the present, Almuete, et al., have not surfaced to surrender despite broadcast and print media announcements that they are wanted. The accused could have shown their respect for the court and its processes by surrendering to authorities. They have not in defiance of this Court.[25]
We agree with the trial court. We do not discern any abuse of discretion in the trial court’s promulgation of its decision in the absence of respondents Lloren and Ila, despite the presentation of a medical certificate thereon.

IN LIGHT OF ALL THE FOREGOING, the petition is GRANTED. The assailed decision and resolution of the Court of Appeals are REVERSED AND SET ASIDE. The Decision of the Regional Trial Court dated September 8, 1998 and its Order dated October 12, 1998 are REINSTATED. No costs.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, (Chairman), Quisumbing, Austria-Martinez, and Tinga, JJ., concur.



[1] Penned by Associate Justice Rodrigo V. Cosico, with Associate Justices Godardo A. Jacinto and Remedios Salazar Fernando concurring.

[2] Rollo, pp. 40-41.

[3] Id. at 53.

[4] Id. at 57.

[5] Id. at 62.

[6] Id. at 68-69.

[7] Id. at 38.

[8] 171 SCRA 49 (1989).

[9] Heung v. Frista, 559 So.2d 434.

[10] Alabama Power Co. v. City of Fort Wayne, 187 S.W.2d 632 (1939).

[11] Sanchez v. Court of Appeals, 279 SCRA 647 (1997).

[12] Condo Suite Club Travel, Inc. v. NLRC, 323 SCRA 679 (2000).

[13] Pioneer Insurance & Surety Corp. v. Hontanosas, 78 SCRA 447 (1977).

[14] Ley Construction & Development Corporation v. Hyatt Industrial Manufacturing Corporation, 339 SCRA 223 (2000).

[15] People v. Court of Appeals, 308 SCRA 687 (1999).

[16] Toh v. Court of Appeals, 344 SCRA 831 (2000).

[17] Tensorex Industrial Corporation v. Court of Appeals, 316 SCRA 471 (1999).

[18] People v. Court of Appeals, supra.

[19] People v. Mercado, 159 SCRA 453 (1988).

[20] 89 SCRA 324 (1979).

[21] People v. Court of Appeals, supra.

[22] 46 Am. Jur.2d Judgment, p. 389.

[23] Ramos v. Court of Appeals, 180 SCRA 635 (1989).

[24] Rollo, p. 38.

[25] Id. at 59-61.

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