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445 Phil. 665

EN BANC

[ G. R. Nos. 148948 & 148951-60, February 17, 2003 ]

COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, PETITIONER, VS. HON LUCENITO N. TAGLE, PRESIDING JUDGE, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 20, IMUS, CAVITE, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

DAVIDE JR., C.J.:

In this special civil action for certiorari and mandamus, petitioner Commission on Elections (COMELEC) seeks the nullification of the orders of 16 March 2001[1] and 9 May 2001[2] of respondent Judge Lucenito N. Tagle of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 20, Imus, Cavite, denying petitioner’s motion to dismiss Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00 and motion for reconsideration, respectively.

During the 11 May 1998 elections, Florentino A. Bautista ran for the position of mayor in the Municipality of Kawit, Cavite. On 8 July 1998, he filed with the COMELEC a complaint against then incumbent mayor Atty. Federico Poblete, Bienvenido Pobre, Reynaldo Aguinaldo, Arturo Ganibe, Leonardo Llave, Diosdado del Rosario, Manuel Ubod, Angelito Peregrino, Mario Espiritu, Salvador Olaes and Pedro Paterno, Jr., for violation of Section 261 (a) and (b) of the Omnibus Election Code. The complaint was supported by the separate affidavits of forty-four (44) witnesses attesting to the vote-buying activities of the respondents and was docketed as E.O. Case No. 98-219.

On 25 February 1999, upon the recommendation of its Law Department, the COMELEC en banc issued a resolution[3] directing the filing of the necessary information against the respondents in E.O. Case No. 98-219 and authorizing the Director IV of the Law Department to designate a COMELEC prosecutor to handle the prosecution of the cases and to file the appropriate motion for the preventive suspension of the respondents.

The Law Department filed the corresponding information against the respondents in E.O. Case No. 98-219 before the RTC, Branch 90, Imus, Cavite, which was docketed as Criminal Case No. 7034-99.

Before the trial of Criminal Case No. 7034-99 commenced, or on 2 December 1999, a complaint was filed by Innocencio Rodelas and Gerardo Macapagal with the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor in Imus, Cavite, for violation of Section 261(a) of the Omnibus Election Code against the witnesses in the criminal case for vote-buying, who were the witnesses in E.O. Case No. 98-219. The complaint was docketed as I.S. No. 1-99-1080.

On 10 April 2000, the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor resolved to file separate informations for vote-selling in the various branches of the RTC in Imus, Cavite, against the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080. The cases were docketed as (1) Criminal Cases Nos. 7940-00 to 7949-00 and 7981-00, which were assigned to Branch 22; (2) Criminal Cases Nos. 7973-00 to 7979-00 and 7970-00, assigned to Branch 21; (3) Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00, assigned to Branch 20; and (4) Criminal Cases Nos. 7960-00 to 7969-00, assigned to Branch 90.

On 23 June 2000, the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080 appealed before the COMELEC the 10 April 2000 Resolution of the Provincial Prosecutor. On 6 July 2000, the COMELEC en banc denied the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.[4] However, upon the urgent motion to set for hearing the appeal, the COMELEC en banc resolved to defer action on the appeal and refer the same to the Law Department for comment and recommendation.[5]

The Law Department of the COMELEC filed motions to suspend proceedings before Branches 20, 21, 22 and 90 of the RTC of Imus, Cavite, until the COMELEC would have resolved the appeal of the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080. The Presiding Judge of Branch 22 granted the motion for the suspension of proceedings in Criminal Cases Nos. 7940-00 to 7949-00 and 7981-00.

In its Minute Resolution No. 00-2453,[6] the COMELEC en banc, upon the recommendation of its Law Department, declared null and void the resolution of the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor in I.S. No. 1-99-1080. It held that the respondents therein are exempt from criminal prosecution pursuant to the fourth paragraph of Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646,[7] otherwise known as “The Electoral Reforms Law of 1987,” which grants immunity from criminal prosecution persons who voluntarily give information and willingly testify against those liable for vote-buying or vote-selling. It further directed the Law Department to file the necessary motions to dismiss the criminal cases filed against the said respondents.

Pursuant to Minute Resolution No. 00-2453, the Law Department filed a motion to dismiss[8] Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00 before Branch 20 of the RTC of Imus, Cavite, presided by herein respondent judge. The latter, however, denied the said motion and the motion for reconsideration. According to respondent judge, before one can be exempt from prosecution under the fourth paragraph of Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646, it is necessary that such person has already performed the overt act of voluntarily giving information or testifying in any official investigation or proceeding for the offense to which such information or testimony was given. It was thus premature to exempt the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080 from criminal prosecution, since they have not yet testified.

Hence, this petition, ascribing to the respondent judge grave abuse of discretion amounting to excess or lack of jurisdiction in peremptorily denying the prosecution’s motion to dismiss Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00.

This Court referred the petition to the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and required it to manifest whether it is adopting the petition.[9] In a Manifestation and Motion[10] filed with this Court, the OSG stated that it repleads the submissions contained in the petition and adopts the petition as its own.

The petition is meritorious.

A free, orderly, honest, peaceful, and credible election is indispensable in a democratic society. Without it, democracy would not flourish and would be a sham. Election offenses, such as vote-buying and vote-selling, are evils which prostitute the election process. They destroy the sanctity of the votes and abet the entry of dishonest candidates into the corridors of power where they may do more harm. As the Bible says, one who is dishonest in very small matters is dishonest in great ones. One who commits dishonesty in his entry into an elective office through the prostitution of the electoral process cannot be reasonably expected to respect and adhere to the constitutional precept that a public office is a public trust, and that all government officials and employees must at all times be accountable to the people and exercise their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency.

The provision of law alleged to have been violated by the respondents in E.O. Case No. 98-219, who are the accused in Criminal Case No. 7034-99, reads as follows:
SEC. 261. Prohibited Acts. - The following shall be guilty of an election offense:
(a) Vote-buying and vote-selling. - (1) Any person who gives, offers or promises money or anything of value, gives or promises any office or employment, franchise or grant, public or private, or makes or offers to make an expenditure, directly or indirectly, or cause an expenditure to be made to any person, association, corporation, entity, or community in order to induce anyone or the public in general to vote for or against any candidate or withhold his vote in the election, or to vote for or against any aspirant for the nomination or choice of a candidate in a convention or similar selection process of a political party.

(2) Any person, association, corporation, group or community who solicits or receives, directly or indirectly, any expenditure or promise of any office or employment, public or private, for any of the foregoing considerations.

(b) Conspiracy to bribe voters. - Two or more persons whether candidates or not, who come to an agreement concerning the commission of any violation of paragraph (a) of this section and decide to commit it.
One of the effective ways of preventing the commission of vote-buying and of prosecuting those committing it is the grant of immunity from criminal liability in favor of the party whose vote was bought. This grant of immunity will encourage the recipient or acceptor to come into the open and denounce the culprit-candidate, and will ensure the successful prosecution of the criminal case against the latter. Congress saw the wisdom of this proposition, and so Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646 on Prosecution of Vote-Buying and Vote-Selling concludes with this paragraph:
The giver, offeror, the promisor as well as the solicitor, acceptor, recipient and conspirator referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) of Section 261 of Batas Pambansa Blg. 881 shall be liable as principals: Provided, That any person, otherwise guilty under said paragraphs who voluntarily gives information and willingly testifies on any violation thereof in any official investigation or proceeding shall be exempt from prosecution and punishment for the offenses with reference to which his information and testimony were given: Provided, further, That nothing herein shall exempt such person from criminal prosecution for perjury or false testimony.
However, to avoid possible fabrication of evidence against the vote-buyers, especially by the latter’s opponents, Congress saw it fit to warn “vote-sellers” who denounce the vote-buying that they could be liable for perjury or false testimony should they not tell the truth.

It must be stressed that the COMELEC has the exclusive power to conduct preliminary investigation of all election offenses punishable under the election laws and to prosecute the same, except as may otherwise be provided by law.[11] The Chief State Prosecutor, all Provincial and City Prosecutors, or their respective assistants are, however, given continuing authority, as deputies of the COMELEC, to conduct preliminary investigation of complaints involving election offenses and to prosecute the same.[12] This authority may be revoked or withdrawn by the COMELEC anytime whenever, in its judgment, such revocation or withdrawal is necessary to protect the integrity of the COMELEC and to promote the common good, or when it believes that the successful prosecution of the case can be done by the COMELEC.[13]

In this case, when the COMELEC nullified the resolution of the Provincial Prosecutor in I.S. No. 1-99-1080, which was the basis of the informations for vote-selling, it, in effect, withdrew the deputation granted to the prosecutor. Such withdrawal of the deputation was clearly in order, considering the circumstances obtaining in these cases where those who voluntarily executed affidavits attesting to the vote-buying incident and became witnesses against the vote-buyers now stand as accused for the same acts they had earlier denounced. What the Prosecutor did was to sabotage the prosecution of the criminal case against the “vote-buyers” and put in serious peril the integrity of the COMELEC, which filed the said case for vote-buying. If the Prosecutor had listened to the command of prudence and good faith, he should have brought the matter to the attention of the COMELEC.

Petitioner COMELEC found that the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080, who executed affidavits and turned witnesses in Criminal Case No. 7034-99, voluntarily admitted that they were the acceptors or recipients in the vote-buying done by the accused in said case. It was precisely because of such voluntary admission and willingness to testify that the COMELEC en banc, in its Minute Resolution No. 00-2453, declared null and void the resolution of the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Cavite in I.S. No. 1-99-1080 and held that the respondents therein are exempt from criminal prosecution pursuant to the last paragraph of Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646. Hence, it directed its Law Department to file a motion to dismiss the criminal cases which the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor filed in court against the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080.

We agree with the petitioner and hold that the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080, who are the accused in Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00, are exempt from criminal prosecution for vote-selling by virtue of the proviso in the last paragraph of Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646. Respondent judge lost sight of the fact that at the time the complaint for vote-selling was filed with the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor, the respondents in I.S. No. 1-99-1080 had already executed sworn statements attesting to the corrupt practice of vote-buying in the case docketed as Criminal Case No. 7034-99. It cannot then be denied that they had already voluntarily given information in the vote-buying case. In fact, they willingly testified in Criminal Case No. 7034-99 per petitioner’s Memorandum filed with this Court.[14]

In a futile attempt to justify his denial of the motion to dismiss Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00, respondent judge averred in his comment on the petition that nothing was mentioned in the motion to dismiss that the accused in said cases had already given information or testified in any proceeding. Besides, no record of any preliminary investigation was attached to the motion to dismiss. The petitioner merely referred to the dispositive portion of Minute Resolution No. 00-2453 without mentioning any preliminary investigation conducted by the Law Department of the COMELEC.

This contention is without basis. A reading of the motion to dismiss Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00 shows that a certified true copy of COMELEC Minute Resolution No. 00-2453 was attached thereto and was made an integral part thereof. The attached resolution indicated that the accused in the cases sought to be dismissed had voluntarily given information and were willing to testify against the vote-buyers, and are therefore utilized as witnesses in the pending case for vote-buyers docketed as Criminal Case No. 7034-99.

Clearly then, respondent judge committed grave abuse of discretion when he denied the motion to dismiss Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00 despite COMELEC’s determination that the accused therein are exempt from criminal prosecution for vote-selling pursuant to the proviso in the fourth paragraph of Section 28 of R.A. No. 6646.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The challenged orders dated 16 March 2001 and 9 May 2001 of respondent judge in Criminal Cases Nos. 7950-00 to 7959-00 and 7980-00 before Branch 20 of the Regional Trial Court in Imus, Cavite, are hereby SET ASIDE, and said criminal cases are ordered DISMISSED.

No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.

Bellosillo, Puno, Vitug, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing,  Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.
Ynares-Santiago,
J., on leave.
Callejo, Jr., J., no part.



[1] Rollo, 32-35.

[2] Id., 36.

[3] Rollo, 18-19.

[4] Rollo, 20-21.

[5] Id., 22-24.

[6] Rollo, 25-31.

[7] Entitled “An Act Introducing Additional Reforms in the Electoral System and for Other Purposes.”

[8] Rollo, 52-54.

[9] Rollo, 63.

[10] Id., 64-65.

[11] Section 1, Rule 34, COMELEC Rules of Procedure.

[12] Section 2, Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Rollo, 69-79, at 78.

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