Spelmans v. Ocampo (A.M. No. MTJ-07-1663; March 26, 2010)


On April 8, 2006 complainant Roland Ernest Marie Jose Spelmans (Spelmans), a Belgian, filed before the Office of the Ombudsman, Mindanao, a complaint for theft and graft and corruption against respondent Municipal Trial Court (MTC) Judge Gaydifredo Ocampo (Judge Ocampo) of Polomolok, South Cotabato.

Spelmans alleged in his affidavit that in 2002 his wife, Annalyn Villan (Villan), filed a complaint for theft against JoelitoRencio (Rencio) and his wife from whom Spelmans rented a house in Polomolok, South Cotabato. Spelmans claimed, however, that this complaint was but his wife’s scheme for taking out his personal properties from that house. In the course of the investigation of the complaint, Judge Ocampo, together with the parties, held an ocular inspection of that rented house and another one where Spelmans kept some of the personal belongings of his late mother.

During the ocular inspection, Judge Ocampo allegedly took pieces of antique, including a marble bust of Spelmans’ mother, a flower pot, a statue, Oakwood chairs and other items. In the meantime, the Bureau of Immigration happened to detain Spelmans in Manila and let him free only on January 28, 2003.

The Ombudsman, Mindanao, referred Spelmans’ complaint against Judge Ocampo to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA). In his comment of August 8, 2006, Judge Ocampo denied the charge, pointing out that Spelmans’ wife, Villan (the complainant in that theft case), gave him certain household items for safekeeping before she filed the case of theft against Rencio. On August 28, 2002, however, after conducting a preliminary investigation in the case, Judge Ocampo dismissed Villan’s complaint.

Only in 2006, according to Judge Ocampo, when he received a copy of Spelmans’ complaint for grave misconduct did he learn of the couple’s separation and his unwitting part in their legal battles. As a last note, Judge Ocampo said that instead of hurling baseless accusations at him, Spelmans should have thanked him because he kept his personal properties in good condition.

On October 17, 2006 OCA found Judge Ocampo guilty of committing acts of impropriety and maintaining close affinity with a litigant in violation of Canons 1 and 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary. Since, under Rule 140 of the Revised Rules of Court, as amended, a violation of Supreme Court rules, directives, and circulars constitutes a less serious charge, punishable either with suspension or fine, the OCA recommended the imposition of a fine of P5,000.00 on Judge Ocampo with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar act shall be dealt with more severely.
ISSUE: Does the act of a judge in taking and keeping personal items belonging to a litigant in his court constitute a violation of the new code of judicial conduct?

HELD: While the OCA correctly found respondent judge liable for his actions, the OCA however, erred in charging him an offense falling merely under Section 11(B), in relation to Section 9(4) of Rule 140, as amended, which is a less serious charge of violation of Supreme Court rules, punishable by either suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one nor more than three months or a fine of more than P10,000.00 but not exceeding P20,000.00. Respondent judge should instead be made accountable for gross misconduct constituting violations of the New Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Section 6 of Canon 1, Section 1 of Canon 2, and Section 1 of Canon 4.

Judge Ocampo's defenses on the charges against him were unsatisfactory.

The following may be gleaned from evidence presented. Judge Ocampo does not deny that he conducted an ocular inspection of the houses that Spelmans used in Polomolok. But the purpose of this ocular inspection is suspect. Judge Ocampo did not explain what justified it. Also, If Judge Ocampo's claims that the subject properties were entrusted to him by Spelmans' wife are true, it would constitute trust relations between them and should have prompted Judge Ocampo to inhibit himself from hearing the case. Moreover, by his admission, Judge Ocampo returned the items only after four years when Spelmans already filed a complaint against him. He makes no claim that he made a previous effort to return those supposedly entrusted items either to Villan or to Spelmans. His years of possession obviously went beyond mere safekeeping.

From the circumstances, his acts were motivated by malice. He was not a warehouseman for personal properties of litigants in his court. He certainly would have kept Spelmans’ properties had the latter not filed a complaint against him. He was guilty of covetousness. It affected the performance of his duties as an officer of the court and tainted the judiciary’s integrity. He should be punished accordingly.

The Court finds respondent Judge GUILTY of gross misconduct and IMPOSES on him the penalty of SUSPENSION from office without salary and other benefits for six (6) months.
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