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384 Phil. 732


[ G.R. No. 130602, March 15, 2000 ]





Accused Michael Fronda (hereafter FRONDA); Antonino Flora, Jr.; and Lauro Millamina, Jr., were charged with and tried for violation of Section 4, Article II of R.A. No. 6425,[1] as amended, before the Regional Trial Court of Baguio City, Branch 6, in Criminal Case No. 14570-R under an information whose accusatory portion reads as follows:
That on or about the 8th day of October, 1996, in the City of Baguio, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, conspiring, confederating and mutually aiding one another, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously sell and deliver to PO3 June Corpuz and PO2 Ceasary Harry Bedey, members of the Philippine National Police, Baguio City, one (1) kilo marijuana leaves wrapped with newspaper, a prohibited drug, well knowing that the sale and delivery of such drug is prohibited without authority of law to do so, in violation of the aforementioned provisions of law.

Accused entered a plea of not guilty upon arraignment.

At the trial, the prosecution presented as witnesses PO2 Ceasary Harry Bedey and PO3 June Corpuz, who arrested the accused, and Police Senior Inspector Alma Margarita Villaseñor, the forensic chemist.

After its Demurrer to Evidence was denied, the defense presented as witnesses the three accused and their landlady, Mrs. Lolita Flora.

The prosecution's evidence was faithfully summarized by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) in its Manifestation and Motion in Lieu of Appellee's Brief as follows:
On October 8, 1998, around 12:00 high noon, Police Officer Cesary Harry Bedey, Desk Officer at the Baguio City Police Office, was informed by a "concerned citizen" thru telephone that somebody was engaged in selling marijuana at No. 341 A. Bonifacio Street, Baguio City (TSN, December 11, 1996, p.3). The caller mentioned the names of Michael Fronda, Antonino Flora, Jr. and Lauro Millamina, Jr., as the marijuana dealers (TSN, ibid., p.6).

After referring the matter to his superior, Officer Bedey was advised to look for Police Officer June Corpuz who was also a resident of No. 341 A. Bonifacio Street (TSN, ibid., p.4).

When Officer June Corpuz arrived at the police station around 8:30 in the evening, Bedey immediately relayed to him the information about the drug dealing activities at the given address (TSN, ibid., pp. 4-5). Both of them then agreed to verify "the information" and proceeded to 341 Bonifacio Street, which was also Corpuz' residence (TSN, ibid., p.5).

There were actually two (2) houses at 341 A. Bonifacio Street. The first house was the residence of the land lady, Lolita Flora, while the second house was a two-storey building leased to bedspacers. There were 2 rooms at the first floor and also two rooms at the second floor. One room at the first floor was occupied by Fronda, Flora and Millamina and beside it was another room occupied by one Gilbert Mugot. At the second floor, Officer Corpuz occupied the room directly above that of the accused (TSN, December 3, 1996, pp. 8-9).

To avoid detection, Corpuz then went ahead of Bedey and a woman companion. Upon reaching the place, he joined the drinking session held at the room of Gilbert Mugot (TSN, December 3, 1996, pp. 4-5, 10).

Meanwhile, Bedey and his woman companion following Corpuz, proceeded to the house of the landlady and inquired where the appellant and his co-accused resided (TSN, December 3, 1996, pp. 5-6; TSN, December 11, 1996, p. 5). After Lolita Flora had pointed to one of the rooms at the first floor, Bedey proceeded there and knocked at the door (TSN, December 11, 1996, p.7). Somebody from inside then pulled the door open half-way and asked, "What do you want?" (TSN, ibid., pp. 8-9,11,13).

As soon as the door was opened, Bedey stepped backwards, about 3 to 4 meters (TSN, December 11, 1996, p.9), and then asked if he could buy marijuana (TSN, ibid., pp.9,13).

Someone answered, "there is," and a square package wrapped in newspaper about 1 to 2 inches thick, 8 ½ inches in width and 11 inches long was then handed to Bedey (TSN, ibid., pp. 9, 15, 16).

Bedey immediately opened the package a little, smelled it and determined that the contents were marijuana (TSN, ibid., p. 20). At the same time, he asked, "How much?" (TSN, ibid., pp. 13-18).

When somebody answered "P1,000.00," Bedey immediately shouted "positive" (TSN, ibid., pp. 19-20).

Upon hearing Bedey, officer June Corpuz immediately rushed towards him from the next room (TSN, December 3, 1996, p. 11). He and Bedey then advised/invited the occupants of the room to come out (TSN, December 3, 1996, ibid; December 11, 1996, p. 20) Michael Fronda, Lauro Millamina., Jr., and Antonino Flora, Jr. came out of the room (TSN, December 11, 1996, p. 22; December 3, 1996, pp. 11,14, 16-17).

The three were immediately brought to the police station and charged with selling marijuana (TSN, December 3, 1996, p. 18; December 11, 1996, p. 32). Meanwhile, the brick of marijuana was turned over to the PNP Crime Laboratory where Alma Margarita Villaseñor, Forensic Chemist, subjected it to physical, chemical and confirmatory tests (TSN, December 3, 1996, p. 38). The package, weighing 1.1 kilograms, was confirmed to be marijuana, a prohibited drug (TSN, ibid., pp. 38-40, Exhibit "D").
The accused's defense is denial. Their version of the incident was also succinctly summarized by the OSG in its Manifestation and Motion in Lieu of Appellee's Brief, thus:
[The accused] claimed that they hailed from Talogtog, Nueva Ecija and were freshmen students at the University of Baguio (TSN, February 4, 1997, pp. 13-14; February 6, 1997, p. 2). Since June 1996, they stayed as bedspacers at the boarding house/ apartment of Mrs. Lolita Flora at No. 341 A. Bonifacio Street, Baguio City (TSN, February 4, 1997, p. 3; February 6, 1997, ibid).

From June 16 to September 30, 1996, only the three of them occupied a room located at the first floor of the apartment. However, on October 1, 1996, one Ramil (Rommel) Oroy from Kapangan, Benguet, was taken in by Mrs. Lolita Flora as another bedspacer and stayed with them in their room (TSN, February 4, 1997, pp. 3-4; February 5, 1997, p. 2; February 6, 1997, p. 8).

Around 7:00 o'clock in the evening of October 8, 1996, Fronda, Flora and Millamina came home one after the other from their respective classes at the University of Baguio. At the time, Oroy was inside, talking with two (2) unidentified visitors. They did not mind Oroy and his visitors and proceeded to eat their supper. Thereafter, the three of them went to sleep (TSN, February 4, 1997, pp. 6-7, 19 24; February 5, 1997, pp. 9-10; February 6, 1997, pp. 4-6).

They were suddenly awakened when they heard someone calling their names and ordering them to go out of their room (TSN, February 4, 1997, pp. 8-9; February 5, 1997, p. 4.). As soon as they went out, they were surprised when they were handcuffed and brought to the police station for allegedly dealing in marijuana (TSN, February 4, 1997, pp. 9-12; February 5, 1997, pp. 6-8; February 6, 1997, pp. 6-7).

Mrs. Lolita Flora confirmed on the stand that, indeed, on October 8, 1996, appellant Fronda, Flora and Millamina were sharing their room with a new boarder, Rommel/Ramil Oroy.
All the accused vigorously denied having anything to do with the brick of marijuana recovered on the night of 8 October 1996, which they allegedly saw for the first time only during the trial.[3] FRONDA claimed that he did not even know what a marijuana was.[4] Millamina denied that he was engaged in selling marijuana, and that any one of them handed the marijuana to PO2 Bedey.[5]

In its Decision of 6 March 1997,[6] the trial court found the prosecution's evidence sufficient to prove that the accused conspired in delivering or dealing in marijuana. It reasoned that (1) the accused were literally caught flagrante delicto, delivering or dealing a brick of marijuana to PO2 Bedey; (2) only the accused came out of the room where the brick of marijuana was obtained; (3) the marijuana was sold and delivered by the three of them, if not by one of them; (4) since the accused chose to cover up for each other, they must have acted together in dealing in the marijuana; and (5) notwithstanding the fact that no money was exchanged, there was a transaction of the delivery of the marijuana and the "twin elements of the selling transaction and the corpus delicti were present to uphold a conviction under Section 4, Article II of the Dangerous Drugs Act, as amended."

The trial court did not find credible accused's claim that they were mere students, since their classcards, enrollment or registration papers, or even their teachers and classmates were not presented. It dismissed as concocted and fabricated the defense's story that a fourth bedspacer named Rommel Oroy/Ramil Uroy was inside the room of the accused with two unidentified visitors in the night of 8 October 1996 when the marijuana was obtained by PO2 Bedey, considering that PO3 Corpuz testified categorically that only the three accused came out of the room as occupants. If indeed Ramil Oroy and his two unidentified visitors were inside the room on that occasion, they could not have escaped the attention of the policemen, there being only one door to the room and the two policemen were outside that door when they asked the occupants to come out. Besides, when caught, the accused did not tell the police that there were other occupants in the room. The Court disbelieved Lolita Flora's corroborative testimony that a certain Ramil Oroy was also a bedspacer in that room and considered it as a last minute attempt on her part to help out the three accused to create a doubt on who were inside the room at the time.

The trial court thus convicted all the accused of violation of Republic Act No. 6425, as amended, and sentenced them to suffer the penalty of reclusion perpetua and to pay a fine of P500,000, plus costs.

On 11 March 1997, all the three accused filed a Notice of Appeal.[7] However, two days later, Flora and Millamina filed a Motion for Suspension of Sentence[8] under the provision of P.D. No. 603, as amended.[9] Pending its resolution, the trial court issued an Order[10] holding in abeyance Flora and Millamina's Notice of Appeal until their motion was resolved. It also stated that FRONDA's appeal would be forwarded to us only after the resolution of his co-accused's motion for suspension of sentence.

During the hearing of the motion, the trial court informed Atty. Jaime Ulep, Flora and Millamina's new counsel, that should the Supreme Court ultimately rule that the movants were not entitled to a suspended sentence, they might lose their right to appeal because by their move to avail themselves of the benefit of the suspended sentence, they could be deemed to have withdrawn their appeal and not to have disputed the trial court's finding of guilt. Thus, Flora and Millamina were required to manifest to the court whether

they are pursuing only the appeal of the decision in this case and therefore their appeal should be forwarded immediately to the Supreme Court and that they are withdrawing their Motion for Suspension of Sentence which shall no longer be resolved by the court; or

they are pursuing only the motion to suspend sentence and therefore withdrawing their notice of appeal in which case the court will resolve the Motion to Suspend Sentence immediately; or

they are pursuing their motion for a suspension of sentence which should therefore be resolved by the court and in the event the accused minors do not qualify, their appeal of the decision of the court convicting them should nevertheless be forwarded to the Supreme Court as they are also pursuing the appeal.[11]

In his Manifestation of 26 May 1997 Atty. Ulep stated that accused Flora and Millamina were "pursuing their motion for a suspension of sentence and/or for the suspension of further proceedings under Article 192 of P.D. 603, as amended"; and in the possibility that they would not qualify, they would file a petition to be admitted to bail and to avail themselves of their right to appeal the decision.[12]

On 4 June 1997, the trial court granted Flora and Millamina's motion for suspension of sentence[13] and amended its decision by (1) reducing their penalty to an indeterminate penalty ranging from 6 years and 1 day of prision mayor as minimum to 14 years, 8 months and 1 day of reclusion temporal as maximum on ground of the privileged mitigating circumstance of minority, both being below 18 years of age at the time the offense was committed; (2) suspending their sentence for two years from 4 June 1997; (3) releasing Flora and Millamina and committing them to the custody of their parents and grandparents, respectively, with the supervision of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in Nueva Ecija; and (4) stating that should they behave properly, they would be discharged and their case would be dismissed; otherwise, they would be returned to the court for pronouncement of their penalty.

In its Order of 9 June 1997, the trial court forwarded to us the records of the case "for purposes of the appeal of Michael Fronda only,"[14] and ordered FRONDA's commitment to the Bureau of Corrections in Muntinlupa City for preventive imprisonment pending appeal.[15]

In our Resolution of 19 January 1998 we accepted not only the appeal of FRONDA, but also those of Flora and Millamina. The acceptance of the appeals of Flora and Millamina was erroneous because they did not appeal from the Amended Decision. Consequently, we shall deal only with FRONDA's appeal.

FRONDA alleges that (a) the trial court erred in convicting him solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and in totally disregarding the evidence for the defense; (b) the prosecution's evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction; and (c) there being no factual or legal basis, the decision is a complete nullity.

For the State, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) filed a Manifestation and Motion in Lieu of Appellee's Brief, submitting that the prosecution's evidence fails to meet the quantum of evidence required to overcome the constitutional presumption of innocence; and thus, regardless of the supposed weakness of their defense, all the accused are entitled to acquittal. It therefore recommends the acquittal not only of appellant FRONDA, but also of his co-accused, Flora and Millamina.

In every criminal prosecution, the identity of the offender or offenders, like the crime itself, must be established by proof beyond reasonable doubt. Identification which does not preclude a reasonable possibility of mistake cannot be accorded any evidentiary force.[16] Thus, where eyewitnesses contradict themselves on the identity of the malefactor, the element of reasonable doubt is injected and cannot be lightly disregarded.[17] In the absence of proof beyond reasonable doubt as to the identity of the culprit, the accused's constitutional right of presumption of innocence until the contrary is proved is not overcome, and he is entitled to an acquittal[18] even though his innocence may be doubted.[19] The constitutional presumption of innocence guaranteed to every individual is of primary importance, and the conviction of the accused must rest not on the weakness of the defense but on the strength of the evidence for the prosecution.[20]

In the instant case, as correctly pointed out by both FRONDA and the OSG, the trial court's finding that FRONDA and the other accused were "literally caught flagrante delicto, delivering or dealing in a brick of marijuana to Police Officer Bedey" is not supported by the evidence adduced by the prosecution. Flagrante delicto means "[i]n the very act of committing the crime."[21] To be caught flagrante delicto, therefore, necessarily implies positive identification by the eyewitness or eyewitnesses. Such is a "direct evidence" of culpability, which is "that which proves the fact in dispute without the aid of any inference or presumption"[22] in contrast to circumstantial evidence which is "the proof of facts from which, taken collectively, the existence of the particular fact in dispute may be inferred as a necessary or probable consequence."[23] Circumstantial evidence, however, is not a weaker form of evidence vis-á-vis direct evidence, for our rules make no distinction between direct evidence of fact and evidence of circumstances from which the existence of a fact may be inferred.[24] No greater degree of certainty is required when the evidence is circumstantial than when it is direct; for in either case, the trier of fact must be convinced beyond reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused.[25]

In this case, as pointed out by the parties, neither PO2 Bedey, who transacted with and obtained the brick of marijuana from "somebody" in the room at 341 A. Bonifacio St., Baguio City, nor PO3 Corpuz, who rushed to the scene upon hearing Bedey shout "Positive," could identify the person or persons Bedey was talking to and dealing with prior to and at the time the brick of marijuana was obtained. Thus, the trial court had to resort to inference that since Bedey obtained the brick of marijuana from "somebody" from the same room occupied by FRONDA and the other accused who, when their names were called, "volunteered" as occupants of the room, then one or some of them must be responsible for selling and delivering to Bedey the marijuana.

From the testimony of PO2 Bedey on the circumstances resulting in the delivery of a brick of marijuana, it is clear that none of the accused was caught flagrante delicto selling or delivering marijuana. Due to the darkness and lack of illumination inside and outside the door where the transaction took place, Bedey could not identify the person he was dealing with. He was not even sure how many person or persons he was talking to that night in question. Significantly, he admitted that there were several persons who came out of the room other than the accused. Like PO3 Corpuz, he did not even bother to enter the room to check whether there were persons other than the accused. When Bedey was given the final chance to identify who among the three accused talked to him and handed him the marijuana, he could not do so.[26]

PO3 Corpuz, who was in another room when Bedey obtained the marijuana, neither witnessed the transaction leading to the delivery of marijuana. His testimony that only the accused came out of the room was materially contradicted by Bedey's testimony that besides the accused, there were other persons who came out of the room. Moreover, Corpuz also admitted during cross examination that, like Bedey, he did not enter the room of the accused and thus could not definitely rule out the possibility that there were other persons in the room aside from the three.[27]

In view of the admissions by the police officers who conducted the "operation" that they could not identify the person or persons who transacted with Bedey and delivered the brick of marijuana, and that they did not bother to enter the room where the marijuana was obtained, there is no moral certainty that FRONDA and the other accused were responsible for the delivery of marijuana to Bedey.

Indeed, far from having been caught flagrante delicto, the evidence against FRONDA and his co-accused is, at most, only circumstantial in nature. Where the evidence is purely circumstantial, there should be an even greater need than usual to apply with vigor the rule that the prosecution cannot depend on the weakness of the defense and that any conviction must rest on nothing less than a moral certainty of guilt of the accused.[28] Under the Rules of Court, circumstantial evidence would be sufficient for conviction if the following concur: (a) there is more than one circumstance; (b) the facts from which the inferences are derived are proved; and (c) the combination of all the circumstances is such as to produce a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. Or, as jurisprudentially formulated, a judgment of conviction based on circumstantial evidence can be upheld only if the circumstances proven constitute an unbroken chain which leads to one fair and reasonable conclusion pointing to the accused, to the exclusion of all others, as the guilty person; i.e., the circumstances proven must be consistent with each other and consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty.[29]

The only circumstantial evidence clearly established by the prosecution against the accused are the following: (1) the fact that a brick of marijuana was obtained by Bedey from "somebody" inside the room which the appellants were also occupying; and (2) when called out, the accused "volunteered" to come out of the room. The concordant combination and cumulative effect of these circumstances do not satisfy the requirements of Section 4, Rule 133 of the Rules of Court. They do not conclusively establish the guilt of the accused beyond any reasonable doubt. They do not exclude the possibility that other persons might have been the ones who transacted with Bedey and handed him the marijuana principally because the police officers failed to seal off the area from other curious boarders and to enter the room to ensure that no other persons were still inside that room. Notably, Bedey testified that there were other persons besides the accused who came out of the room.

The foregoing disquisitions render unnecessary a discussion on the trial court's finding of conspiracy.

A final word on the fate of Flora and Millamina is in order. We disagree with the view of the trial court that the application and grant of Flora and Millamina's suspension of sentence presupposed their acceptance of the finding of guilt against them and constituted a waiver of the right to appeal. It must be emphasized that an application for suspension of sentence under the provisions of Article 192 of the Child and Youth Welfare Code is not the same as an application for probation, which is deemed a waiver of their right to appeal.[30] There is nothing in the said Code which prohibits a youthful offender from appealing his conviction after he proves to be incorrigible and the trial court proceeds to pronounce its judgment of guilty and sentence against him.[31] In fact, as amended by P.D. No. 1179, Article 197 of the Code expressly provides that the convicted offender may still apply for probation under the provisions of P. D. No. 968. Conversely, the accused may pursue his appeal if he chooses not to avail himself of the benefits of probation. Although the right to appeal is a statutory right, it is an essential part of the judicial system. Courts should proceed with caution so as not to deprive a party of this right; they should, instead, afford every party-litigant the amplest opportunity for the proper and just disposition of his cause, free from the constraints of technicalities.[32]

At any rate, even if Flora and Millamina did not pursue their appeal, the acquittal of FRONDA and our finding that the prosecution has not established the guilt of all the accused beyond reasonable doubt must, perforce, benefit Flora and Millamina.[33] First, neither the charge of conspiracy nor their individual liability was proved beyond reasonable doubt. Second, under Section 11 (a), Rule 122 of the Rules on Criminal Procedure, an "[a]ppeal taken by one or more of several accused shall not affect those who did not appeal, except in so far as the judgment of the appellate court is favorable and applicable to the latter." After all, the grant of suspended sentence to accused Flora and Millamina does not mean that they are already exonerated from the crime charged; only that the pronouncement of judgment and the service of sentence are suspended[34] until their return to court for final disposition depending on their conduct and the progress of rehabilitation.[35] Should the criminal case against them be dismissed based on their observance of good conduct, it would only mean that they would suffer no penalty.[36]

WHEREFORE, the Amended Decision of the RTC, Baguio City, Branch 6, in Criminal Case No. 14570-R is hereby REVERSED. A new judgment is hereby rendered ACQUITTING MICHAEL FRONDA y QUINDARA and his co-accused ANTONINO FLORA y SABADO, JR., and LAURO MILLAMINA y CINENSE, JR. The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is directed to immediately release from confinement MICHAEL FRONDA unless his further detention is warranted by virtue of any lawful cause, and to make a report of such release within five (5) days from notice hereof.

Costs de oficio.


Puno, Kapunan, and Ynares-Santiago, JJ., concur.
Pardo, J., abroad on official business.

[1] The Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, as amended by R.A. No. 7659.

[2] Original Record (OR), 1.

[3] TSN, 4 February 1997, 12; TSN, 5 February 1997, 8-9, 21; TSN, 6 February 1997, 7, 23.

[4] Id., 4 February 1997, 12.

[5] Id., 6 February 1997, 7, 23.

[6] OR, 83-99; Rollo, 20-36. Per Judge Ruben C. Ayson.

[7] OR, 101-102; Rollo, 58-59.

[8] OR, 103.

[9] Article 192, The Child and Youth Welfare Code. They cited as grounds their minority (being only 17 years of age); their being first time offenders; and the sentence meted upon them being only reclusion perpetua and not a life sentence or death penalty. (OR, 103).

[10] OR, 106- 110.

[11] Order of 30 April 1997, 2; OR, 151.

[12] OR, 154-155.

[13] Id., 160-170.

[14] OR, 192.

[15] Id., 193

[16] Natividad v. Court of Appeals, 98 SCRA 335, 346 [1980], citing People v. Beltran, 61 SCRA 246, 250 [1974]; People v. Manambit, 271 SCRA 344, 377 [1997], citing People v. Maongco, 230 SCRA 562, 575 [1994].

[17] People v. Manambit, supra, 379; citing People v. De la Iglesia, 241 SCRA 718, 732, [1995] and People v. Eroles, 226 SCRA 554, 559 [1993].

[18] See Natividad v. Court of Appeals, supra note 16, at 346.

[19] Pecho v. People, 262 SCRA 518, 533 [1996], citing U.S. v. Gutierrez, 4 Phil. 493 [1905]; People v. Sadie, 149 SCRA 240 [1987]; Perez v. Sandiganbayan, 180 SCRA 9 [1989].

[20] People v. Pidia, 249 SCRA 687, 702 [1995].

[21] Black's Law Dictionary 575 (5th ed., 1979 ).

[22] 7 Vicente J. Francisco, The Revised Rules of Court in the Philippines (Evidence, Part I) 3-4 (1997).

[23] Id., 4.

[24] People v. Prado, 254 SCRA 531, 539 [1996], citing People v. Ramos, 240 SCRA 191, 199 [1995].

[25] People v. Ramos, supra, 199.

[26] TSN, 11 December 1996, 8-10, 14-15, 17, 22-26, 30-34.

[27] TSN, 3 December 1996, 14, 18, 31.

[28] People v. Payawal, 247 SCRA 424, 431 [1995], citing People v. Argawanon, 231 SCRA 614 [1994].

[29] People v. Estrellanes, Jr., 239 SCRA 235, 248 [1994]; People v. Maqueda, 242 SCRA 565, 591-592 [1995]; Pecho v. People, supra note 19, at 531; People v. Diaz, 262 SCRA 723, 732 [1996]; People v. Tabag, 268 SCRA 115, 127 [1997];

[30] Section 4, P.D. No. 968, as amended. Section 5(a) of the Family Court Act of 1997, R.A. No. 8369, provides: "[I]f a minor is found guilty, the court shall promulgate sentence and ascertain any civil liability.... The sentence, however, shall be suspended without need for application pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 603." (Underscoring supplied).

[31] Art. 197, Presidential Decree No. 603, as amended. See People v. Garcia, 105 SCRA 6 [1981].

[32] Moslares v. Court of Appeals, 291 SCRA 440, 448 [1998], citing Santos v. Court of Appeals, 253 SCRA 632 [1996].

[33] Cf. People v. Perez, 263 SCRA 206, 220 [1996], citing People v. Fernandez, 186 SCRA 830 [1990].

[34] Magtibay v. Tiangco, 74 Phil. 576, 578 [1944].

[35] Articles 196-198, P.D. 603, as amended.

[36] Magtibay v. Tiangco, supra note 34.

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