G.R. No. 234196. November 21, 2018

SECOND DIVISION: [G.R. No. 234196, November 21, 2018]
JONATHAN MENDOZA Y ESGUERRA, PETITIONER, V. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, RESPONDENT. A. REYES, JR., J.:


Before this Court is a petition for review on certiorari[1] under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court seeking to annul and set aside the Decision[2] dated June 21, 2017 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR No. 38156 and its Resolution[3] dated August 24, 2017, denying the motion for reconsideration thereof. The assailed decision affirmed albeit with modification as to penalty the Decision[4] dated August 26, 2015 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Tanauan, Batangas, Branch 6, finding Jonathan Mendoza y Esguerra (petitioner) guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Illegal Possession of Firearm and Ammunitions as defined and penalized by Presidential Decree (P.D.) No. 1866, as amended by Republic Act (R.A.) No. 8294.

An Information was filed before the RTC of Tanauan City, Batangas, Branch 6, charging the petitioner for violation of P.D. No. 1866, as amended by R.A. No. 8294, to wit:
That on or about the 31st day of August 2006, at about 11:45 o'clock in the evening at Barangay 5, Poblacion, City of Tanauan, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, without authority of law, did then and there willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously has in his possession, custody and control one (1) Ranger caliber 45 pistol (Imperial Defense Service) with Serial No. C02009, two (2) magazines with nine (9) pieces of live ammunitions and three (3) pieces of empty shells of the same caliber without having secured the necessary license and/or permit from the proper authorities to possess the same.
CONTRARY TO LAW.[5]
On December 13, 2006, assisted by the counsel, the petitioner was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to the crime charged.[6] Trial on the merits ensued thereafter.

The evidence for the prosecution tend to establish that on August 31, 2006, at about 11:45 p.m., during a checkpoint, Police Officer 1 Ryan Pagcaliwagan (PO1 Pagcaliwagan), PO1 Celso Torres, and PO1 Fheljun Calalo flagged down a motorcycle as it had no license plate and its three occupants were not wearing a helmet. The occupants were later identified as Julius Opeña (Opeña), the owner of the motorcycle, Jeffrey Coral (Coral), and herein petitioner who was then driving the motorcycle.[7]

As they were approaching the motorcycle, PO1 Pagcaliwagan saw the petitioner take a firearm and cover it with a bag. The former then alerted his co-police officers, took the firearm and arrested the petitioner who denied ownership of the gun, but at the same time claimed the same was licensed.[8]

Confiscated from the petitioner were one (1) gray Ranger caliber .45 pistol with Serial No. CO2009, one (1) stainless magazine with four (4) pieces of live ammunition, one (1) black magazine, five (5) live ammunition, and three (3) pieces of empty shells for caliber .45. The items were brought to the police station and turned over to PO1 Charlie Bermejo and marked by PO1 Pagcaliwagan.[9]

For their part, the defense presented as witnesses the petitioner, Opena, and Anthony Carpio (Carpio).[10]

The petitioner denied any criminal liability and by way of defense claimed that the firearm, magazines, and live ammunition were the product of an illegal search and thus were illegally obtained in his possession.[11]

The petitioner testified that on the alleged date of the incident, he went to a drinking spree with his friends at Barangay Santol. Thereafter, the petitioner submitted that he went to buy more beer with his friends Opeña and Coral. While on their way and as they were passing Bank of the Philippine Islands, they were stopped by police officers. As ordered, they stopped and alighted from the motorcycle. They were frisked and the motorcycle was searched. As a result of which, the firearm, magazines, and ammunitions were recovered under the seat of the motorcycle.[12]

Opeña and Carpio corroborated the petitioner's testimony. Carpio, in his testimony, likewise admitted that the firearm and ammunition are registered under his name, and that he placed the same under the seat of the motorcycle without the knowledge of the petitioner. Carpio submitted that he brought the said firearm as he intends to sell the same to a friend but later forgot to retrieve the same from the motorcycle. Carpio averred that the day after, after having learned of the petitioner's arrest, he immediately went to the police station and presented his license to the chief of police his license to possess the said firearm.[13]

On August 26, 2015, the lower court rendered its Decision,[14] the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, and finding [petitioner] GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the crime charged, the court hereby sentences him to suffer the penalty of imprisonment from six (6) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years of prision mayor and to pay a fine of Thirty Thousand Pesos (Php 30,000.00). 
Without pronouncement as to costs. 
SO ORDERED.[15]
In so ruling, the RTC held that the prosecution established the elements of the crime charged. In so doing, the RTC relied heavily on the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan that the subject firearms and ammunitions were retrieved from the petitioner. Further, and similarly relying on the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan, the RTC found untenable the petitioner's defense of illegal search and seizure as well as lack of knowledge as to his possession of the seized items, concluding the search was incidental to a lawful arrest. The RTC held that PO1 Pagcaliwagan was correct in flagging down, arresting, searching, and seizing the subject items from the petitioner after seeing the latter withdrew a gun and hid it under his bag.

Aggrieved, the petitioner appealed to the CA. On June 21, 2017, the CA rendered its Decision[16] affirming the lower court's decision, as follows:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, we AFFIRMED with Modification the Decision of the [RTC] dated August 26, 2015 in Criminal Case No. 06-09-3144. As modified, [the petitioner] is hereby sentenced to suffer the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment ranging from SIX (6) YEARS of prision correccional in its maximum period, as minimum, to SIX (6) YEARS, EIGHT MONTHS and ONE DAY of prision mayor minimum in its medium period, as maximum and to pay a fine of P30,000.00. 
SO ORDERED.[17]
The CA affirmed the finding of the RTC that there was a valid search and seizure of the subject item, which is done pursuant to a lawful arrest. Contrary however to the RTC's determination, the CA held that it was the initial violation for the absence of license plate and helmet that justified the search and seizure in this case. Anent the penalty, the CA modified the imposition by the RTC which it found to be contrary to the indeterminate sentence law.

The petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration, which the CA denied in its Resolution[18] dated August 24, 2017.

Hence, this petition for review on certiorari whereby the petitioner submits the following issues for the Court's resolution, viz.:
1.) Whether or not police officers have the legal authority to search the body of the driver and/or his motorcycle because he violated traffic rules and regulations?
2.) Whether or not the police officers in this case had validly conducted a search incident to a lawful arrest as governed by Section 12, Rule 126 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure.
In its Comment, the respondent argues that PO1 Pagcaliwagan and his fellow police officers "had a valid and legal reason to seize the firearm from the petitioner, who, in their presence, tried to hide said firearm, a clear indication that at that time, he had committed or was committing an offense."[19] Further, the respondent justifies the act of the police officer in flagging down the motorcycle driven by the petitioner by the fact that it appears to have no plate number.

After a careful scrutiny of the records of the instant case, the Court finds that the rise or fall of the instant petition depends upon the appreciation of the testimony of the parties. Particularly, whether the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan is sufficient to produce a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.

Ruling of the Court

The Court rules in the negative.

The issue of credibility is a factual issue that is generally beyond the province of a petition for review on certiorari in accordance with the principle that the Court is not a trier of facts. Thus, as a rule, the assessment of the credibility of witnesses is generally left to be determined by the trial court which had the opportunity to observe the witnesses and evaluate their credibility through their demeanor on the stand. Likewise, the factual findings by the trial court when affirmed by the CA, are accorded respect by the Court and not disturbed on appeal. However, jurisprudence provided exceptions to the said rule. Thus, the Court may pass upon questions of fact: where there is an "ostensible incongruence" in the findings of the said courts,[20] or in criminal cases where the testimony upon which the conviction is based is "riddled with patent inconsistencies and improbabilities on material points."[21] The Court, in Medina v. Mayor Asistio, Jr.,[22] summarized the recognized exceptions to the rule, thus under the following instances, the Court, acting on a petition for review for certiorari may rule upon factual questions:
(1) When the conclusion is a finding grounded entirely on speculation, surmises or conjectures; (2) When the inference made is manifestly mistaken, absurd or impossible; (3) Where there is a grave abuse of discretion; (4) When the judgment is based on a misapprehension of facts; (5) When the findings of fact are conflicting; (6) When the Court of Appeals, in making its findings, went beyond the issues of the case and the same is contrary to the admissions of both appellant and appellee; (7) The findings of the Court of Appeals are contrary to those of the trial court; (8) When the findings of fact are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based; (9) When the facts set forth in the petition as well as in the petitioner's main and reply briefs are not disputed by the respondents; and (10) The finding of fact of the Court of Appeals is premised on the supposed absence of evidence and is contradicted by the evidence on record.[23] (Citations omitted)
In this controversy, a review of the records reveals that there are improbabilities in the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan, upon which the conviction is based, thus warranting that the Court re-examine the relevant facts and circumstances. Primarily, while the same relies heavily on the credibility of the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan, a matter that is generally left for the trial court to determine, finding that the appreciation of the same is erroneous, the Court decides to make its own evaluation of the evidence on record. In this light, the Court concludes that the warrantless arrest of the petitioner is invalid, which thus renders the search conducted thereafter illegal.

The prosecution and the defense vary as to their narration of what happened on the day the alleged crime was committed.

Based on the testimony of PO1 Pagcaliwagan, they flagged down the motorcycle ridden by the petitioner, and the latter's two (2) male companions after noticing that the vehicle bore no license plate and its occupants were not wearing a helmet. Thereafter, PO1 Pagcaliwagan allegedly saw the petitioner took out a gun and hid it under his bag. This is what prompted the officers to arrest the petitioner and conduct a search as an incident thereto.

The theory of the prosecution, which was found credible by both the RTC and the CA, was that the warrantless arrest and search was justified under Section 5(a) and (b), Rule 113 of the Rules of Court which provides:
Sec. 5. Arrest without warrant; when lawful. — A peace officer or a private person may, without a warrant, arrest a person:
(a) When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;
(b) When an offense has just been committed, and he has probable cause to believe based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances that the person to be arrested committed it.
x x x x
In order for an arrest to be justified under paragraph (a), the following elements must be present: (1) the person to be arrested must execute an overt act indicating that he has just committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit a crime; and (2) such overt act is done in the presence or within the view of the arresting officer. On the other hand, in order for paragraph (b) to operate, at the time of the arrest, an offense had in fact just been committed and the arresting officer had personal knowledge of facts indicating that the appellant had committed it.[24]

Even siding with the version offered by the prosecution, the Court sees no such overt act, much more, an offense that was committed that would justify the arrest of the petitioner without warrant.
The petitioner and his companions were flagged down during a checkpoint after the police officers noticed that the motorcycle which they were riding bore no license plate and the riders are not wearing any helmet. The commission of a traffic violation does not justify the arrest of the petitioner. Under Section 29[25] of R.A. No. 4136 or The Land Transportation Code, such violation merely warrant the confiscation of the offender's driver's license.[26]

Furthermore, the conflicting accounts of how the firearm was retrieved, lend support that the arrest and eventual search and seizure are invalid.

In this case, while PO1 Pagcaliwagan claims that the firearm was within his plain sight just as the petitioner attempted to conceal the same while 2 to 3 meters away from the checkpoint, the petitioner claims that the motorcycle's compartment was opened and from there PO1 Pagcaliwagan saw and recovered the firearm and ammunitions.

The Court finds the story offered by PO1 Pagcaliwagan as to how the firearm was retrieved, hard to believe. When confronted by police officers, the ordinary reaction of a person who knows that he has in his possession a gun for which he has no license is to prevent the same from being discovered. It is inconceivable why the petitioner would go the lengths of going down the motorcycle, opening the compartment from under the seat and remove the well-concealed firearm, only to again cover the same with his bag in front.

The theory is not only contrary to human experience and reaction but as well faced with suspicion in view of the fact that the placement of the gun when it was taken was outside the view of other police officers in the checkpoint. Simply, it is only PO1 Pagcaliwagan who affirmed that the firearm was in plain sight.[27]

Also the charge must fail as the prosecution failed to establish the essential elements of, and the facts constitutive of the offense charged.[28]

The petitioner was indicted of the crime of illegal possession of firearms, as defined and penalized by P.D. No. 1866, as amended by R.A. No. 8294. The elements for the prosecution of which crime are: (1) the existence of subject firearm; and (2) the fact that the accused who possessed or owned the same does not have the corresponding license for it. Verily, ownership is not an essential element of the crime of illegal possession of firearms. What is merely required is either actual or constructive possession coupled with animus possidendi or intent to possess.[29]

In this controversy, while the existence of the firearm and the absence by the petitioner of the license to own the same may be conceded, the absence on the part of the petitioner of animus possidendi is sufficient to cause his acquittal.

In the case of People v. De Gracia,[30] the Court held that while mere possession, without criminal intent, is sufficient to convict a person for illegal possession of a firearm, it must still be shown that there was animus possidendi or an intent to possess on the part of the accused. Otherwise stated, to be convicted of illegal possession of firearms it is sufficient that the accused had no authority or license to possess a firearm, and that he intended to possess the same, even if such possession was made in good faith and without criminal intent. Thus, the Court continued:
[A] temporary, incidental, casual, or harmless possession or control of a firearm cannot be considered a violation of a statute prohibiting the possession of this kind of weapon, such as Presidential Decree No. 1866. Thus, although there is physical or constructive possession, for as long as the animus possidendi is absent, there is no offense committed.[31]
Animus possidendi is a concept that eludes specific standards to indicate its existence. Being a state of mind, animus possidendi is determined on a case to case basis, taking into consideration the prior and contemporaneous acts of the accused and the surrounding circumstances.[32] "What exists in the realm of thought is often disclosed in a range of action."[33]

The petitioner claims that he was not aware that the subject firearm and ammunitions were inside the motorcycle's compartment. This was corroborated by Carpio, the firearm's owner. Carpio's testimony was succinctly summarized by the CA, viz.:
Anthony admitted and corroborated the testimony of accused-appellant, among others, that the firearm and ammunition were owned and licensed in his name, that he placed the bag containing the said firearm and ammunition in the compartment of the motorcycle without the knowledge of accused-appellant. He further testified that he happened to bring the firearm as he intended to sell it to his co-worker who failed to arrive that day in Brgy. Santol. However, he forgot about the firearm in the motorcycle when he left the accused-appellant at the drinking session. It was only the following day that he learned of the arrest of the accused-appellant for possessing the firearm. Immediately, he proceeded to the police station. He saw the accused-appellant in jail and presented to the chief of police his license to possess said firearm.[34] (Citations omitted.)
The consistency of the story and the manner in which Carpio acted coupled with the fact that the petitioner was merely charged to be the driver on the night of the incident bolsters the conclusion that the petitioner was indeed not aware of the presence of the firearm and ammunitions inside the motorcycle compartment. Not being the owner of the motorcycle, the petitioner cannot even be remotely charged with or presumed to have knowledge of the subject firearm.

Knowledge is an essential component of intent. Without awareness or knowledge of the existence of the subject firearm and ammunitions, it cannot be said that the petitioner has the intent to possess.
While absence of knowledge on the part of the petitioner cannot be established with absolute certainty in this case, possibilities abound that constrain the Court to acquit the accused. It is both well settled and elementary principle in criminal law that when the facts and evidence are susceptible to two or more interpretations, one of which consistent with the innocence of the accused, and the other with his guilt, acquittal must ensue.[35] As in that case, the prosecution is regarded to not have hurdled the test of moral certainty required for conviction.[36]

The overriding consideration in criminal prosecutions is not whether the court doubts the innocence of the accused but whether there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt, in which case the Court is "under a long standing injunction" to resolve the doubt in favor of the petitioner.[37] Where there is reasonable doubt, presumption of innocence must be favored and the accused must be exonerated as a matter of right, even though his innocence may not have been established.[38] This is a guarantee that no less that the Constitution enshrines.

WHEREFORE, in consideration of the foregoing disquisitions, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated June 21, 2017 and Resolution dated August 24, 2017 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR No. 38156 are hereby REVERSED AND SET ASIDE. Petitioner Jonathan Mendoza y Esguerra is ACQUITTED of the crime of Illegal Possession of Firearms and Ammunitions on the ground of reasonable doubt.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio (Chairperson), Perlas-Bernabe, Caguioa, and J. Reyes, Jr.,[*] JJ., concur.

[*] Designated as Additional Member per Special Order No. 2587 dated August 28, 2018.
[1] Rollo, pp. 18-32.
[2] Penned by Associate Justice Leoncia Real-Dimagiba, with Associate Justices Ramon R. Garcia and Henri Paul Inting, concurring; id. at 5-12.
[3] Id. at 13.
[4] Rendered by Judge Arcadio I. Manigbas; id. at 35-44.
[5] Id. at 5-6.
[6] Id. at 6.
[7] Id. at 6-7.
[8] Id. at 7.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 7-8.
[13] Id. at 8.
[14] Id. at 6.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 5-12.
[17] Id. at 11-12.
[18] Id. at 13.
[19] Rollo, pp.70-71.
[20] Estate of Margarita D. Cabacungan v. Laigo, et al., 671 Phil. 132, 146 (2011).
[21] People v. Bansil, 364 Phil. 22, 31-32 (1999).
[22] 269 Phil. 225 (1990).
[23] Id. at 232.
[24] People v. Villareal, 706 Phil. 511, 517-518 (2013).
[25] SEC. 29. Confiscation of Driver's License. — Law enforcement and peace officers of other agencies duly deputized by the Director shall, in apprehending a driver for any violation of this Act or any regulations issued pursuant thereto, or of local traffic rules and regulations not contrary to any provisions of this Act, confiscate the license of the driver concerned and issue a receipt prescribed and issued by the Bureau therefor which shall authorize the driver to operate a motor vehicle for a period not exceeding seventy-two hours from the time and date of issue of said receipt. The period so fixed in the receipt shall not be extended, and shall become invalid thereafter. Failure of the driver to settle his case within fifteen days from the date of apprehension will be a ground for the suspension and/or revocation of his license.
[26] Luz v. People, 683 Phil. 399, 406 (2012).
[27] TSN, April 30, 2009. p. 8.
[28] People v. Ganguso, 320 Phil. 324, 335 (1995).
[29] Jacaban v. People, 756 Phil. 523, 532 (2015); Gonzales v. CA, 343 Phil. 297, 305 (1997).
[30] 304 Phil. 118 (1994).
[31] Id. at 130.
[32] Jacaban v. People, supra note 29; People v. De Gracia, id.
[33] People v. De Gracia, id. at 131-132.
[34] Rollo, p. 8.
[35] People v. Salidaga, 542 Phil. 295, 308-309 (2007).
[36] Marcos v. Sandiganbayan (1st Division), 357 Phil. 762, 783 (1998).
[37] People v. Salidaga, supra note 35.
[38] People v. Maraorao, 688 Phil. 458, 466-467 (2012).

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