August 9, 2012
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Republic of the Philippines



G.R. No. L-30026           January 30, 1971




Jose W. Diokno for petitioners.

Office of the Solicitor General Felix V. Makasiar, Assistant Solicitor General Antonio A. Torres and Solicitor Eduardo C. Abaya for respondent.




Habeas corpus, the great writ of liberty, is relied upon by petitioners, five in number, for their release from imprisonment. Meted out life terms for the complex crime of rebellion with murder and other crimes, they would invoke the People v. Hernandez 1 doctrine, negating the existence of such an offense, a ruling that unfortunately for them was not handed down until after their convictions had become final. Nor is this the first instance, a proceeding of this character was instituted, as in Pomeroy v. Director of Prisons,2 likewise a petition for habeas corpus, a similar question was presented. The answer given was in the negative. Petitioners plead for a new look on the matter. They would premise their stand on the denial of equal protection if their plea would not be granted. Moreover they did invoke the codal provision that judicial decisions shall form part of the legal system of the Philippines,3 necessarily resulting in the conclusion that the Hernandez decision once promulgated calls for a retroactive effect under the explicit mandate of the Revised Penal Code as to penal laws having such character even if at the time of their application a final sentence has been rendered “and the convict is serving the same.”4 These arguments carry considerable persuasion. Accordingly we find for petitioners, without going so far as to overrule Pomeroy.

Petitioner Mario Gumabon, after pleading guilty, was sentenced on May 5, 1953 to suffer reclusion perpetua for the complex crime of rebellion with multiple murder, robbery, arson and kidnapping. Petitioners Gaudencio Agapito, Paterno Palmares and Epifanio Padua, likewise pleaded guilty to the complex crime of rebellion with multiple murder and other offenses, and were similarly made to suffer the same penalty in decisions rendered, as to the first two, on March 8, 1954 and, as to the third, on December 15, 1955. The last petitioner, Blas Bagolbagol, stood trial also for the complex crime of rebellion with multiple murder and other offenses and on January 12, 1954 penalized with reclusion perpetua. Each of the petitioners has been since then imprisoned by virtue of the above convictions. Each of them has served more than 13 years.5

Subsequently, in People v. Hernandez, 6 as above noted, this Court ruled that the information against the accused in that case for rebellion complexed with murder, arson and robbery was not warranted under Article 134 of the Revised Penal Code, there being no such complex offense.7 In the recently-decided case of People vs. Lava,8 we expressly reaffirmed the ruling in the Hernandez case rejecting the plea of the Solicitor General for the abandonment of such doctrine. It is the contention of each of the petitioners that he has served, in the light of the above, more than the maximum penalty that could have been imposed upon him. He is thus entitled to freedom, his continued detention being illegal.9

The fear that the Pomeroy ruling stands as an obstacle to their release on a habeas corpus proceeding prompted petitioners, as had been mentioned, to ask that it be appraised anew and, if necessary, discarded. We can resolve the present petition without doing so. The plea there made was unconvincing, there being a failure to invoke the contentions now pressed vigorously by their counsel, Attorney Jose W. Diokno, as to the existence of a denial of a constitutional right that would suffice to raise a serious jurisdictional question and the retroactive effect to be given a judicial decision favorable to one already sentenced to a final judgment under Art. 22 of the Revised Penal Code. To repeat, these two grounds carry weight. We have to grant this petition.

1. The fundamental issue, to repeat, is the availability of the writ of habeas corpus under the circumstances disclosed. Its latitudinarian scope to assure that illegality of restraint and detention be avoided is one of the truisms of the law. It is not known as the writ of liberty for nothing. The writ imposes on judges the grave responsibility of ascertaining whether there is any legal justification for a deprivation of physical freedom. Unless there be such a showing, the confinement must thereby cease. If there be a valid sentence it cannot, even for a moment, be extended beyond the period provided for by law. Any deviation from the legal norms call for the termination of the imprisonment.

Rightly then could Chafee refer to the writ as “the most important human rights provision” in the fundamental law.10 Nor is such praise unique. Cooley spoke of it as “one of the principal safeguards to personal liberty.” 11 For Willoughby, it is “the greatest of the safeguards erected by the civil law against arbitrary and illegal imprisonment by whomsoever detention may be exercised or ordered.” 12 Burdick echoed a similar sentiment, referring to it as “one of the most important bulwarks of liberty.” 13 Fraenkel made it unanimous, for to him, “without it much else would be of no avail.” 14 Thereby the rule of law is assured.

A full awareness of the potentialities of the writ of habeas corpus in the defense of liberty coupled with its limitations may be detected in the opinions of former Chief Justices Arellano, 15 Avanceña, 16 Abad Santos, 17 Paras, 18 Bengzon, 19 and the present Chief Justice. 20 It fell to Justice Malcolm’s lot, however to emphasize quite a few times the breadth of its amplitude and of its reach. In Villavicencio v. Lukban21 the remedy came in handy to challenge the validity of the order of the then respondent Mayor of Manila who, for the best of reasons but without legal justification, ordered the transportation of more than 150 inmates of houses of ill-repute to Davao. After referring to the writ of habeas corpus as having been devised and existing “as a speedy and effectual remedy to relieve persons from unlawful restraint” the opinion of Justice Malcolm continued: “The essential object and purpose of the writ of habeas corpus is to inquire into all manner of involuntary restraint as distinguished from voluntary, and to relieve a person therefrom if such restraint is illegal. Any restraint which will preclude freedom of action is sufficient.” 22

The liberality with which the judiciary is to construe habeas corpus petitions even if presented in pleadings on their face devoid of merit was demonstrated in Ganaway v. Quilen23 where this Court, again through Justice Malcolm, stated: “As standing alone the petition for habeas corpus was fatally defective in its allegations, this court, on its motion, ordered before it the record of the lower court in the case entitled Thomas Casey, et al. v. George Ganaway.” 24 It is to Justice Malcolm likewise in Conde v. Rivera25 to whom is traceable the doctrine, one that broadens the field of the operation of the writ, that a disregard of the constitutional right to speedy trial ousts the court of jurisdiction and entitles the accused if “restrained of his liberty, by habeas corpus to obtain his freedom.” 26

So it is in the United States. An 1830 decision 27 of Chief Justice Marshall put the matter thus: “The writ of habeas corpus is a high prerogative writ, known to the common law, the great object of which is the liberation of those who may be imprisoned without sufficient cause.” Then there is this affirmation from an 1869 decision 28 of the then Chief Justice Chase: “The great writ of habeas corpus has been for centuries esteemed the best and only sufficient defense of personal freedom.” The passing of the years has only served to confirm its primacy as a weapon on in the cause of liberty. Only the other year, Justice Fortas spoke for the United States Supreme Court thus: “The writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action. … The scope and flexibility of the writ — its capacity to reach all manner of illegal detention — its ability to cut through barriers of form and procedural mazes — have always been emphasized and jealously guarded by courts and lawmakers. The very nature of the writ demands that it be administered with the initiative and flexibility essential to insure that miscarriages of justice within its reach are surfaced and corrected.” 29 Justice Fortas explicitly made reference to Blackstone, who spoke of it as “the great and efficacious writ, in all manner of illegal confinement.” Implicit in his just estimate of its pre-eminent role is his adoption of Holmes’ famous dissent in Frank v. Mangum30 “But habeas corpus cuts through all forms and goes to the very tissue of the structure.”

2. Where, however, the detention complained of finds its origin in what has been judicially ordained, the range of inquiry in a habeas corpus proceeding is considerably narrowed. For if “the person alleged to be restrained of his liberty is in the custody of an officer under process issued by a court or judge or by virtue of a judgment or order of a court of record, and that the court or judge had jurisdiction to issue the process, render the judgment, or make the order,” the writ does not lie.31That principle dates back to 1902, 32 when this Court announced that habeas corpus was unavailing where the person detained was in the custody of an officer under process issued by a court or magistrate. This is understandable, as during the time the Philippines was under American rule, there was necessarily an adherence to authoritative doctrines of constitutional law there followed.

One such principle is the requirement that there be a finding of jurisdictional defect. As summarized by Justice Bradley in Ex parte Siebold, an 1880 decision: “The only ground on which this court, or any court, without some special statute authorizing it, will give relief on habeas corpus to a prisoner under conviction and sentence of another court is the want of jurisdiction in such court over the person or the cause, or some other matter rendering its proceedings void.” 33

There is the fundamental exception though, that must ever be kept in mind. Once a deprivation of a constitutional right is shown to exist, the court that rendered the judgment is deemed ousted of jurisdiction and habeas corpus is the appropriate remedy to assail the legality of the detention. 34

3. Petitioners precisely assert a deprivation of a constitutional right, namely, the denial of equal protection. According to their petition: “In the case at bar, the petitioners were convicted by Courts of First Instance for the very same rebellion for which Hernandez, Geronimo, and others were convicted. The law under which they were convicted is the very same law under which the latter were convicted. It had not and has not been changed. For the same crime, committed under the same law, how can we, in conscience, allow petitioners to suffer life imprisonment, while others can suffer onlyprision mayor?”35

They would thus stress that, contrary to the mandate of equal protection, people similarly situated were not similarly dealt with. What is required under this required constitutional guarantee is the uniform operation of legal norms so that all persons under similar circumstances would be accorded the same treatment both in the privileges conferred and the liabilities imposed. As was noted in a recent decision: “Favoritism and undue preference cannot be allowed. For the principle is that equal protection and security shall be given to every person under circumstances, which if not identical are analogous. If law be looked upon in terms of burden or charges, those that fall within a class should be treated in the same fashion, whatever restrictions cast on some in the group equally binding on the rest.” 36

The argument of petitioners thus possesses a persuasive ring. The continued incarceration after the twelve-year period when such is the maximum length of imprisonment in accordance with our controlling doctrine, when others similarly convicted have been freed, is fraught with implications at war with equal protection. That is not to give it life. On the contrary, it would render it nugatory. Otherwise, what would happen is that for an identical offense, the only distinction lying in the finality of the conviction of one being before the Hernandez ruling and the other after, a person duly sentenced for the same crime would be made to suffer different penalties. Moreover, as noted in the petition before us, after our ruling in People v. Lava, petitioners who were mere followers would be made to languish in jail for perhaps the rest of their natural lives when the leaders had been duly considered as having paid their penalty to society, and freed. Such a deplorable result is to be avoided.

4. Petitioners likewise, as was made mention at the outset, would rely on Article 22 of the Revised Penal Code which requires that penal judgment be given a retroactive effect. In support of their contention, petitioners cite U.S. v. Macasaet,37 U.S. vs. Parrone38 U.S. v. Almencion39 People v. Moran40 and People v. Parel41 While reference in the above provision is made not to judicial decisions but to legislative acts, petitioners entertain the view that it would be merely an exaltation of the literal to deny its application to a case like the present. Such a belief has a firmer foundation. As was previously noted, the Civil Code provides that judicial decisions applying or interpreting the Constitution, as well as legislation, form part of our legal system. Petitioners would even find support in the well-known dictum of Bishop Hoadley:

“Whoever hath an absolute authority to interpret any written or spoken laws, it is he who is truly the law-giver to all intents and purposes, and not the person who first thought or spoke them.” It is to be admitted that constitutional law scholars, notably Frankfurter, 42 Powell, 43 and Thayer, 44 in discussing judicial review as well as the jurist John Chipman Gray, were much impressed with the truth and the soundness of the above observations. We do not have to go that far though. Enough for present purposes that both the Civil Code and the Revised Penal Code allow, if they do not call for, a retroactive application.

It being undeniable that if the Hernandez ruling were to be given a retroactive effect petitioners had served the full term for which they could have been legally committed, is habeas corpus the appropriate remedy? The answer cannot be in doubt. As far back as 1910 the prevailing doctrine was announced in Cruz v. Director of Prisons45 Thus: “The courts uniformly hold that where a sentence imposes punishment in excess of the power of the court to impose, such sentence is void as to the excess, and some of the courts hold that the sentence is void in toto; but the weight of authority sustains the proposition that such a sentence is void only as to the excess imposed in case the parts are separable, the rule being that the petitioner is not entitled to his discharge on a writ of habeas corpus unless he has served out so much of the sentence as was valid.” 46 There is a reiteration of such a principle in Director v. Director of Prisons 47 where it was explicitly announced by this Court “that the only means of giving retroactive effect to a penal provision favorable to the accused … is the writ of habeas corpus.” 48 While the above decision speaks of a trial judge losing jurisdiction over the case, insofar as the remedy of habeas corpus is concerned, the emphatic affirmation that it is the only means of benefiting the accused by the retroactive character of a favorable decision holds true. Petitioners clearly have thus successfully sustained the burden of justifying their release.

WHEREFORE, the petition for habeas corpus is GRANTED, and it is ordered that petitioners be forthwith set at liberty.

Dizon and Zaldivar, JJ., concur.

Concepcion, C.J., concurs in the result.

Castro and Makasiar, JJ., took no part.



1 99 Phil. 515 (1956).

2 107 Phil. 50 (1960).

3 Art. 8 of the Civil Code provides: “Judicial decisions applying or interpreting the laws or the Constitution shall form a part of the legal system of the Philippines.”

4 According to Art. 22 of the Revised Penal Code: “Retroactive effect of penal laws.—Penal laws shall have a retroactive effect insofar as they favor the person guilty of a felony, who is not a habitual criminal, as this term is defined in rule 5 of article 62 of this Code, although at the time of the publication of such laws a final sentence has been pronounced and the convict is serving the same.”

5 Petition, par. 1.1 dated January 11, 1969. The above allegations are expressly admitted in the answer for the respondent Director of Prisons filed by the Solicitor General on April 10, 1969.

6 99 Phil. 515 (1956).

7 The petition likewise cited in addition to People v. Hernandez, People v. Geronimo, 100 Phil. 90 (1956); People v. Togonon, 101 Phil. 804 (1957); People v. Romagoza, 103 Phil. 20 (1958) and People v. Santos, 104 Phil. 551 (1958). Petition, par. 1.2.

8 L-4974, May 16, 1969.

9 Petition, par. 1.3.

10 Chafee, The Most Important Human Right in the Constitution, 32 Boston Univ. Law Rev. 143 (1947).

11 2 Cooley, Constitutional Limitations, 709 (1927).

12 3 Willoughby on The Constitution 1612 (1929).

13 Burdick, The Law of the American Constitution, 27 (1922).

14 Fraenkel, Our Civil Liberties, 6 (1944).

15 Cf. In re Patterson, 1 Phil. 93 (1902).

16 Cf. Ortiz v. del Villar, 57 Phil. 19 (1932).

17 Cf. Slade Perkins v. Director of Prisons, 58 Phil. 271 (1933).

18 Cf. Pomeroy v. Director of Prisons, 107 Phil. 50, 59-62, diss. (1960).

19 Cf. Avelino v. Vera, 77 Phil. 192 (1946).

20 Cf. Saulo v. Cruz, 105 Phil. 315 (1959).

21 39 Phil. 778 (1919).

22 Ibid., p. 790.

23 42 Phil. 805 (1922).

24 Ibid., p. 805.

25 45 Phil. 650 (1924).

26 Ibid., p. 652.

27 Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 193, 202.

28 Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 95.

29 Harris v. Nelson, 22 L Ed 2d 281, 286 (1969).

30 237 US 309, 346 (1915).

31 Section 4, Rule 102 provides: “If it appears that the person alleged to be restrained of his liberty is in the custody of an officer under process issued by a court or judge or by virtue of a judgment or order of a court of record, and that the court or judge had jurisdiction to issue the process, render the judgment, or make the order, the writ shall not be allowed; or if the jurisdiction appears after the writ is allowed, the person shall not be discharged by reason of any informality or defect in the process, judgment, or order. Nor shall anything in this rule be held to authorize the discharge of a person charged with or convicted of an offense in the Philippines, or of a person suffering imprisonment under lawful judgment.” 3 Moran, Comments on the Rules of Court, p. 604, 1970 ed.

32 In re Prautch, 1 Phil. 132.

33 100 US 371, 375. According to Ex parte Lange: “On consideration of the petition, the court was of opinion that the facts therein recited very fairly raised the question whether the circuit court, in the sentence which it had pronounced, and under which the prisoner was held, had not exceed its powers. It therefore directed the writ to issue, accompanied also by a writ of certiorari, to bring before this court the proceedings in the circuit court under which the petitioner was restrained of his liberty. The authority of this court in such case, under the Constitution of the United States, and the 14th section of the judiciary act of 1789 (1 Stat. at L. 73), to issue this writ, and to examine the proceedings in the inferior court, so far as may be necessary to ascertain whether that court has exceeded its authority, is no longer open to question.” (85 US 163, 165-166 [1874]). Justice Miller, who penned the opinion, cited the following cases: U.S. v. Hamilton, 3 Dall. 17 (1795); Ex parte Burford, 3 Cranch 448 (1806); Ex parte Bollman, 4 Cranch 75 (1807); Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 193, 7 Pet. 508 (1830); Ex Parte Metzger, 5 How. 176 (1847); Ex parte Kaine, 14 How. 103 (1852); Ex parte Wells, 18 How. 307 (1856); Ex Parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2 (1866); Ex parte McCardle, 6 Wall. 318 (1868); Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85 (1869).

34 Cf. Conde v. Rivera, 45 Phil. 650 (1924); Harden v. Director of Prisons, 81 Phil. 741 (1948); Abriol v. Homeres, 84 Phil. 525 (1949); Chavez v. Court of Appeals,  L-29169, Aug. 1968, 24 SCRA 663; Celeste v. People, L-21435, Jan. 30, 1970, 31 SCRA 391.

35 Petition, par. 5.1, p. 11.

36 J. M. Tuason & Co., Inc. v. Land Tenure Administration, L-21064, Feb. 18, 1970, 31 SCRA 413.

37 11 Phil. 447 (1908).

38 24 Phil. 29 (1913).

39 25 Phil. 648 (1913).

40 44 Phil. 387 (1923).

41 44 Phil. 437 (1923).

42 Frankfurter, The Reading of Statutes, reproduced in Of Law and Men, 47, at p. 53 (1956).

43 Powell, The Logic and Rhetoric of Constitutional Law, 1 Selected Essays on Constitutional Law 474, at p. 481 (1938).

44 Thayer, The Origin and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law, Ibid., 503, at p. 524 (1938).

45 17 Phil. 269.

46 Ibid., pp. 272-273.

47 56 Phil. 692 (1932).

48 Ibid. p. 695.


Justice Teehankee: Concurring and Dissenting Opinion

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