Shu v. Dee (G.R. No. 182573; April 23, 2014)


FACTS: The petitioner is the President of the 3A Apparel Corporation. He filed a complaint before the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) charging the respondents of falsification of two deeds of real estate mortgage submitted to the Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company. Both deeds of real estate mortgage were allegedly signed by the petitioner, one in his own name while the other was on behalf of 3A Apparel Corporation.According to the petitioner, the respondents were employees of Metrobank. Respondents Jaime T. Dee and Edwin So signed the two deeds of real estate mortgage as witnesses; respondents Ramon S. Miranda and Enriqueto I. Magpantay notarized the deeds of real estate mortgage signed by the petitioner in his own behalf and for the corporation, respectively. The signature of respondent Larry Macillan, on the other hand, appeared in the deeds of real estate mortgage which he submitted to the Office of the Registrar of Deeds for San Juan, Metro Manila. Based on these deeds, Metrobank foreclosed the two properties securing the 3A Apparel Corporations loan.

After investigation, the NBI filed a complaint with the City Prosecutor of Makati (city prosecutor) charging the respondents of the crime of forgery and falsification of public documents. The NBI supported the complaint with the Questioned Documents Report No. 746-1098 (questioned documents report) issued by its Questioned Documents Division. The questioned documents report states that the signatures of the petitioner which appear on the questioned deeds are not the same as the standard sample signatures he submitted to the NBI.

The respondents argued in their counter-affidavits that they were denied their right to due process during the NBI investigation because the agency never required them and Metrobank to submit the standard sample signatures of the petitioner for comparison. The findings contained in the questioned documents report only covered the sample signatures unilaterally submitted by the petitioner as compared with the signatures appearing on the two deeds of real estate mortgage. An examination of the signatures of the petitioner which appear in several documents in Metrobank's possession revealed that his signatures in the questioned deeds are genuine. The respondents also argued that the examination of the documents was conducted without the original copies of the questioned deeds of real estate mortgage.

The city prosecutor found no probable cause against the respondents and, consequently, dismissed the complaint for lack of merit. The city prosecutor ruled that the questioned documents report is not conclusive evidence that the respondents committed the crime charged.

The petitioner appealed the city prosecutor resolution to the Secretary of Justice who reversed the city prosecutors findings.

The Secretary of Justice denied the respondent's motion for reconsideration prompting them to file a petition for certiorari with the CA. The respondents alleged that the Secretary of Justice committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in issuing the assailed resolution. The CA granted the petition and annulled the assailed resolution of the Secretary of Justice.

ISSUE: Were respondents denied of their right to due process?

HELD: The essence of due process is simply the opportunity to be heard. What the law prohibits is not the absence of previous notice but its absolute absence and lack of opportunity to be heard. Sufficient compliance with the requirements of due process exists when a party is given a chance to be heard through his motion for reconsideration.

In the present case, we do not find it disputed that the respondents filed with the Secretary of Justice a motion for reconsideration of her resolution. Therefore, any initial defect in due process, if any, was cured by the remedy the respondents availed of.

On the respondent's allegation that they were denied due process during the NBI investigation, we stress that the functions of this agency are merely investigatory and informational in nature. It has no judicial or quasi-judicial powers and is incapable of granting any relief to any party. It cannot even determine probable cause. The NBI is an investigative agency whose findings are merely recommendatory. It undertakes investigation of crimes upon its own initiative or as public welfare may require in accordance with its mandate. It also renders assistance when requested in the investigation or detection of crimes in order to prosecute the persons responsible.

Since the NBIs findings were merely recommendatory, we find that no denial of the respondents due process right could have taken place; the NBIs findings were still subject to the prosecutors and the Secretary of Justices actions for purposes of finding the existence of probable cause.

We find it significant that the specimen signatures in the possession of Metrobank were submitted by the respondents for the consideration of the city prosecutor and eventually of the Secretary of Justice during the preliminary investigation proceedings. Thus, these officers had the opportunity to examine these signatures.

The respondents were not likewise denied their right to due process when the NBI issued the questioned documents report. We note that this report merely stated that the signatures appearing on the two deeds and in the petitioners submitted sample signatures were not written by one and the same person. Notably, there was no categorical finding in the questioned documents report that the respondents falsified the documents. This report, too, was procured during the conduct of the NBI's investigation at the petitioner's request for assistance in the investigation of the alleged crime of falsification. The report is inconclusive and does not prevent the respondents from securing a separate documents examination by handwriting experts based on their own evidence. On its own, the NBIs questioned documents report does not directly point to the respondents involvement in the crime charged. Its significance is that, taken together with the other pieces of evidence submitted by the parties during the preliminary investigation, these evidence could be sufficient for purposes of finding probable cause the action that the Secretary of Justice undertook in the present case.

The Secretary of Justice did not commit grave abuse of discretion

Probable cause pertains to facts and circumstances sufficient to support a well-founded belief that a crime has been committed and the accused is probably guilty thereof.

It is well-settled that in order to arrive at a finding of probable cause, the elements of the crime charged should be present. In determining these elements for purposes of preliminary investigation, only facts sufficient to support a prima facie case against the respondent are required, not absolute certainty. Thus, probable cause implies mere probability of guilt, i.e., a finding based on more than bare suspicion but less than evidence that would justify a conviction.

The elements of falsification of public documents are as follows:

(1) the offender is a private individual or a public officer or employee who did not take advantage of his official position;
(2) he committed any of the acts of falsification enumerated in Article 171 of the RPC; and
(3) the falsification was committed in a public, official or commercial document.

In light of the discussion above, we rule that the findings of the Secretary of Justice are more in accord with the duty to determine the existence of probable cause than the findings of the city prosecutor.

Contrary to the respondent's assertions, the Secretary of Justice did not just merely give credence to the questioned documents report and the petitioner's self-serving allegations. The Secretary of Justice made a holistic review of the parties submitted pieces of evidence in ruling that the expert evidence, the disclaimer of the petitioner that he did not sign any promissory note, the lack of proof of receipt of the proceeds of the loan, all tend to prove that he did not execute the subject deeds. Also, the finding in the assailed resolution that the credit line of the petitioner with Metrobank is sufficient consideration for him to have executed the deeds is gratuitous and conjectural.

From the evidence submitted by the parties, the petitioner offered sufficient evidence showing that falsification might have been committed and that the respondents might have been responsible therefor. The NBIs questioned documents report states that the questioned deeds of mortgage and the sample signatures submitted by the petitioner were not written by one and the same person. It was also shown that the respondents Dee, So, Magpantay and Miranda signed and participated in the execution of the two deeds of real estate mortgage and the respondent Macillan signed and submitted these documents to the Office of the Registrar of Deeds for San Juan, Metro Manila. The petitioner also submitted evidence that the passport used in notarizing the documents was a cancelled passport. Furthermore, as the Secretary of Justice found, the respondents did not show that the petitioner received the proceeds of the loan.

The findings of the city prosecutor are not proper in a preliminary investigation but should be threshed out in a full-blown trial.

Read in this light, the respondent's' defense that there are striking similarities in the specimen signatures they submitted and those of the questioned deeds is a matter of evidence whose consideration is proper only in a full-blown trial. In that proper forum, the respondents can present evidence to prove their defense and controvert the questioned documents report; they can raise as issue the alleged irregularities in the conduct of the examination.

We also find that the CA erred in ruling that the city prosecutor's findings should be given more weight than the findings of the Secretary of Justice.

The determination of probable cause is essentially an executive function, lodged in the first place on the prosecutor who conducted the preliminary investigation. The prosecutor's ruling is reviewable by the Secretary who, as the final determinative authority on the matter, has the power to reverse, modify or affirm the prosecutor's determination.

It is well-settled that the findings of the Secretary of Justice are not subject to interference by the courts, save only when he acts with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction; when he grossly misapprehends facts; when he acts in a manner so patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined by law; or when he acts outside the contemplation of law.

Contrary to the findings of the CA, we find that the Secretary of Justice did not gravely abuse the exercise of her discretion in reversing the findings of the city prosecutor. GRANTED.