SC: Gov't should pay damages for failure to release innocent's property

SECOND DIVISION  [ G.R. No. 180741, January 11, 2010 ]  JEREMIAS I. DOLINO V. BENJAMIN R. VILLANUEVA. In the absence of bad faith, malice or gross negligence, can a public officer be nonetheless held liable for nominal damages for incurring delay in the release of a seized vehicle to its owner?

The Facts and the Case

Respondent Benjamin R. Villanueva (Villanueva) owned a passenger jeepney that plied the Boljoon-Camprango-Dalayday route in Boljoon, Cebu. On July 31, 1993 police authorities stopped his jeepney because of the forest products loaded in it. When the owners of the products failed to present the proper clearance for transporting these products, the police authorities seized and impounded them together with the jeepney. These were later turned over to the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) at Argao, Cebu. On August 20, 1993 police authorities charged the owners of the forest products before the Provincial Prosecutor's Office for transporting them without proper documentation.

On recommendation of the CENRO and the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office, petitioner Jeremias I. Dolino (Dolino), the Regional Executive Director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)-Region 7, referred the disposition of respondent Villanueva's jeepney to the DENR. Secretary on September 14, 1993. [1]

Meanwhile, respondent Villanueva followed up with the CENRO and the DENR Regional Office the release of his jeepney but failed. On January 21, 1994 Villanueva wrote the DENR Regional Office asking for the release of his passenger jeepney.

The DENR Legal Division recommended the release but in his 2nd Indorsement dated February 22, 1994 to petitioner Dolino, the Regional Technical Director for Forest Management Service (RTD-FMS), disagreed, claiming that the jeepney should be confiscated by the government.[2] Dolino did not, however, appear to have taken any further action on the matter.

On June 7, 1994 Villanueva sued petitioner Dolino for damages, alleging that his jeepney had deteriorated since it was detained by the CENRO. He claimed that the DENR Regional Office had released other vehicles similarly situated. Petitioner Dolino countered that he was not negligent in his duties. The matter of seizure of vehicles used in undocumented forest products is for the RTD-FMS's action before it gets to Dolino for approval. Since the RTD-FMS did not agree with the DENR Legal Division's recommendation to release the jeepney, the order of release did not reach Dolino. In any case, the authority to order the release of the jeepney belonged to the DENR Secretary.

Eventually, however, on February 17,1995 Dolino ordered the release of the jeepney.[3] On April 4, 1995 the same was released to Villanueva.

On January 19, 1998 the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Cebu City, Branch 16 found petitioner Dolino liable for damages, attorney's fees, and costs.[4] It held that, although Dolino presented official documents showing that the authority to issue the jeepney's release belonged to the DENR Secretary, the DENR officials had three days within which to conduct an investigation on the matter. In this case, Dolino's subordinates caused substantial delay in acting on the release of Villanueva's jeepney, thereby depriving him of its use for two years. Dolino ordered the release of the passenger jeepney only on February 17, 1995 when the case against him was already pending in court.

Petitioner Dolino appealed to the Court of Appeals (CA). On November 21, 2007 the CA reversed and set aside the RTC decision but ordered Dolino to pay Villanueva the amount of P30,000.00 as nominal damages.[5] It ruled that DENR Administrative Order (AO) 54-93[6] provided only two instances under which the Regional Executive Director can order the release of a seized vehicle used in violation of forestry laws, rules, and regulations. Since Villanueva's case did not fall under these instances, Dolino could not validly order the jeepney's release even if he received the recommendation of the DENR Legal Division. Absent any bad faith, malice or gross negligence, Dolino could not be liable for moral and exemplary damages, attorney's fees, and costs.

In any case, the CA adjudged Dolino liable under Article 32 of the Civil Code for depriving Villanueva of his right to the unimpeded use of his jeepney. Dolino admitted that AO 19-94, which amended AO 54-93, provided that a detention order shall not apply to passenger vehicles unless the same have been specifically hired for the illicit transport of forest products. Dolino already knew of the status of Villanueva's passenger jeepney through the 2nd Indorsement of the RTD-FMS, yet it took him another eight months from the issuance of AO 19-94 to direct the release of the jeepney.

The Issue Presented

The key issue in this case is whether or not petitioner Dolino is liable for nominal damages although the CA found that his failure to order the release of the jeepney was not motivated by bad faith, malice, or gross negligence.

The Court's Ruling

The rule is that a public officer may be sued in his private capacity for acts done in the performance of his official duties and within the scope of his assigned tasks where he (1) acted with malice, bad faith, or negligence; or (2) violated the complainant's constitutional right.[7]

That petitioner Dolino did not act with bad faith, malice, or gross negligence in not ordering the release of the jeepney has not been put in question. The question raised is whether or not he violated respondent Villanueva's constitutional right, thus entitling him to nominal damages.

Article 32 of the Civil Code which is the pertinent law on the matter provides that:
Art. 32. Any public officer or employee, or any private individual, who directly or indirectly obstructs, defeats, violates or in any manner impedes or impairs any of the following rights and liberties of another person shall be liable to the latter for damages:


(6) The right against deprivation of property without due process of law;

Here, although the government can seize illegally obtained forest products and subject them to administrative forfeiture, it cannot deal with the privately owned jeepney in the same way. Unlike the forest products, the government does not own the jeepney. Consequently, it must eventually seek Court order to keep it indefinitely as an implement or tool used in a crime pending its adjudication. If, upon the government's own investigation, it should ascertain that the jeepney owner was an innocent party, its duty is to release the same to him.

Under the same provision of the Civil Code, it is not necessary that the public officer acted with malice or bad faith. To be liable, it is enough that he violated the complainant's constitutional rights, even on the pretext of justifiable motives or good faith in the performance of one's duties.[8]

In the present case, Dolino claims that AO 19-94 did not require him to order the immediate release of seized vehicles. He needed, he said, to determine whether the passenger jeepney was specifically hired for the illicit transport of forest products.

But, as the CA observed, Dolino already knew of the limited involvement of Villanueva's jeepney in the transport of the seized forest products through the 2nd Indorsement of the RTD-FMS. Precisely, the DENR Legal Division already recommended its release to Villanueva after noting that the jeepney took in the forest products under the pretext that they were documented.[9] This had been determined by the DENR Legal Division. Dolino could have used this as basis for the immediate release of Villanueva's jeepney.

What is more, considerable amount of time had lapsed between June 2, 1994 (the time when AO 19-94 was issued) and February 17, 1995 (the time when the jeepney was released). Dolino's deliberate delay for an unreasonable period of time to act on the matter deprived Villanueva of his constitutional right to the use of his property.

WHEREFORE, the Court DENIES the petition and AFFIRMS the Decision dated November 21, 2007 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV 62793. Petitioner Jeremias I. Dolino is ordered to pay respondent Benjamin R. Villanueva the amount of P30,000.00 as nominal damages, by way of vindication of the latter's violated right.


WITNESS the Honorable Antonio T. Carpio, Chairperson, Honorable Arturo D. Brion, Mariano C. Del Castillo, Roberto A. Abad and Jose P. Perez, Members, Second Division, this 11th day of January, 2010.

[1] Records, pp. 40-41.

[2] Id. at 44-45.

[3] Id. at 47-50.

[4] Rollo, pp. 69-75

[5] Id. at 25-37. Penned by Associate Justice Francisco P. Acosta, with Associate Justices Pampio A. Abarintos and Amy C. Lazaro-Javier concurring.

[6] Records, pp. 89-91.

[7] Cojuangco, Jr. v. Court of Appeals, 369 Phil. 41, 58-59 (1999).

[8] Id. at 60; see also lim v. Ponce de Leon, 160 Phil. 991, 1001-1002 (1975).

[9] Records, pp. 42-43.