The Supreme Court (SC) has overturned a Sandiganbayan decision and instead ordered the acquittal of former Siquijor governor Orlando Fua Jr. on a charge of obstruction of justice.
In a decision, the SC reversed the January 19, 2017 decision of the anti-graft court that declared Fua guilty of violating Section 1 (e) of Presidential Decree No. 1829 which penalizes obstruction of apprehension and prosecution of criminal offenders.
The Sandiganbayan had ordered Fua to pay a fine of P6,000 with equivalent imprisonment if not paid. He was perpetually disqualified to hold any public office, prompting him to challenge the Sandiganbayan’s decision before the SC.
In granting Fua’s petition, the SC ruled that “the prosecution miserably failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that petitioner (Fua) committed acts in violation of Section 1 (e) of PD 1829.”
However, the SC admonished Fua “to be more circumspect in his actuations and dealings which may taint the integrity of the public office.”
“Wherefore, the decision dated January 19, 2017 and the Resolution dated March 2, 2018 of the Sandiganbayan in SB- 14-CRM-0001 are reversed and set aside. Petitioner Orlando A. Fua, Jr. is ACQUITTED for failure of the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” the SC said, in a ruling penned by Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting.
Court records showed that the charge against Fua was filed before the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) by Police Inspector Reynaldo Espina Valmoria.
Valmoria alleged that about midnight on Nov. 24, 2010, he led an illegal drugs buy-bust operation against James Alaya-ay Largo in Barangay Tigbawan in Lazi town in Siquijor. Largo was the newly-elected barangay chairman then.
After the operation, he said his team served against Largo the search warrant issued by the regional trial court (RTC) for violation of Republic Act No. 9165, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act.
He said that during the search operation, Fua arrived at Largo’s residence. He alleged that Fua, a lawyer and a childhood friend of Largo, questioned the legality of the operation, demanded to see the warrant, and inquired into the grounds for its issuance.
He also alleged that Fua uttered unsavory remarks against him and his team. Finding a case against Fua, the OMB charged the former governor before the Sandiganbayan on Feb. 18, 2013. After Fua’s motions before the OMB and the Sandiganbayan had been denied, the anti-graft court, on Sept. 22, 2014, found probable cause against him and issued an arrest warrant. During arraignment on March 5, 2015, Fua refused to enter a plea. A “not guilty” plea was entered on his behalf. In his defense, Fua said he went to Largo’s house which is about 100 meters from his house when he received a text message that a search warrant was being served.
Fua said he advised Largo to accept the authority of the policemen who were serving the warrant. He said he asked Valmoria the basis for conducting the search at nighttime. He also said he asked why the team forced themselves into the house before declaring the search and before the witnesses arrived.
The former governor said that while he was not satisfied with Valmoria’s answers, he did not commit any obstruction as he even offered to act as one of the government witnesses against Largo and signed the receipt for the inventory of the seized items during the search.
At the same time, Fua alleged that Valmoria has a grudge against him because his staff assisted in the filing of a case against the police officer for the fatal shooting of a farmer in San Juan town.
In convicting Fua, the Sandiganbayan ruled that his unnecessary presence at the scene of operation and his conduct during the search revealed his intent to impede the service of the search warrant against Largo, who was admittedly his childhood friend.
The anti-graft court also ruled, among other things, that there was nothing on record that would cast doubt on the credibility of the police officers to testify against Fua and that there was no merit on his allegation that he aided the government by consenting to be a witness to the inventory of the seized items.
In ruling in favor of Fua, the SC stressed that the Sandiganbayan has jurisdiction on the case since the alleged offense was committed in relation to his office.
But the SC ruled that “the acts of petitioner in questioning the regularity and manner of implementation of the search warrant were not tantamount to Obstruction of Justice contemplated by PD 1829.”
“Here, petitioner allegedly obstructed the implementation of the search warrant against Largo when he questioned the conduct of the search in the premises. However, the Court is of the view that such act is not the obstruction contemplated by PD 1829,” the SC said.
“First, petitioner only questioned the legality of the search. Being a lawyer himself, he asked for proof of the regularity of its issuance and why it was implemented at midnight,” it added.
“The Court views this as a valid exercise by Largo, through petitioner, of his Constitutional right to be secure in his or her person, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature. The Court notes that the search was made at nighttime and that it already commenced even before the arrival of the persons who were supposed to witness it. Simply put, there were valid grounds to question the implementation of the search warrant,” the SC said.
“To consider these acts as obstruction of justice punishable under PD 1829 would run counter to the basic precepts of Largo’s fundamental right to privacy guaranteed under the 1987 Constitution,” it added.