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Estrada v. Sandiganbayan G.R. No.

14560,
36 SCRA 394 (November 19, 2001)
Facts:

1. Joseph Ejercito Estrada (Estrada), the highest-ranking official to be prosecuted under


RA 7080 (An Act Defining and Penalizing the Crime of Plunder) as amended by RA
7659..
2. Estrada wishes to impress the Court that the assailed law is so defectively fashioned
that it crosses that thin but distinct line which divides the valid from the
constitutionality infirm. That there was a clear violations of the fundamental rights of
the accused to due process and to be informed of the nature and cause of the
accusation.

Issue/s:

1. Whether or not the Plunder Law is unconstitutional for being vague.


2. Whether or not Plunder Law requires less evidence for providing the predicate crimes
of plunder and therefore violates the rights of the accused to due process.
3. Whether Plunder as defined in RA 7080 is a malum prohibitum.

Ruling:

1. No. A statute is not rendered uncertain and void merely because general terms are
used therein, or because of the employment of terms without defining them. There is
no positive constitutional or statutory command requiring the legislature to define
each and every word in an enactment. Congress’ inability to so define the words
employed in a statute will not necessary result in the vagueness or ambiguity of the
law so long as the legislative will is clear, or at least, can be gathered from the whole
act, which is distinctly expressed in the Plunder Law.

It is a well-settled principle of legal hermeneutics that words of a statute will be interpreted in


their natural, plain, and ordinary acceptation and signification, unless it is evident that the
legislature intended a technical or special legal meaning to those words.

Every provision of the law should be construed in relation and with reference to every other
part.

There was nothing vague or ambiguous in the provisions of R.A. 7080

2. No. The legislature did not in any manner refashion the standard quantum of proof in
the crime of plunder. The burden still remains with the prosecution to prove beyond
any iota of doubt every fact or element necessary to constitute a crime.

What the prosecution needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt is only a number of acts
sufficient to form a combination or series which would constitute a pattern and involving an
amount of at least P50,000,000.00. There is no need to prove each and every other act alleged
in the information to have been committed by the accused in furtherance of the overall
unlawful scheme or conspiracy to amass, accumulate or acquire ill-gotten wealth.

3. No. It is malum in se. The legislative declaration in RA No. 7659 that plunder is a
heinous offense implies that it is a malum in se. For when the acts punished are
inherently immoral or inherently wrong, they are mala in se and it does not matter that
such acts are punished in a special law, especially since in the case of plunder that
predicate crimes are mainly mala in se.

Its abomination lies in the significance and implications of the subject criminal acts in the
scheme of the larger socio-political and economic context in which the state finds itself to be
struggling to develop and provide for its poor and underprivileged masses. Reeling from
decades of corrupt tyrannical rule that bankrupted the government and impoverished the
population, the Philippine Government must muster the political will to dismantle the culture
of corruption, dishonesty, green and syndicated criminality that so deeply entrenched itself in
the structures of society and the psyche of the populace. [With the government] terribly
lacking the money to provide even the most basic services to its people, any form of
misappropriation or misapplication of government funds translates to an actual threat to the
very existence of government, and in turn, the very survival of people it governs over.

Note:

 A statute establishing a criminal offense must define the offense with sufficient
definiteness that persons of ordinary intelligence can understand what conduct is
prohibited by the statute. It can only be invoked against the specie of legislation that is
utterly vague on its face, i.e., that which cannot be clarified either by a saving clause
or by construction.
 The “Reasonable Doubt” standard has acquired such exalted statute in the realm of
constitutional law as it gives life to the Due Process Clause which protects the
accused against conviction except upon proof beyond reasonable doubt of every fact
necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.

 A statute or act may be said to be vague when it lack comprehensible standards that
men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ in its
application. In such instance, the statute is repugnant to the Constitution in two (2)
respects it violates due process for failure to accord persons, especially the parties
targeted by it, fair notice of what conduct to avoid; and it leaves law enforcers
unbridled discretion in carrying out its provisions and becomes an arbitrary flexing of
the Government muscle. The first may be “saved” by proper construction, while no
challenge may be mounted as against the second whenever directed against such
activities.

The test in determining whether a criminal statute is void for uncertainty is whether the
language conveys a sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured
by common understanding and practice. It must be stressed, however, that the “vagueness”
doctrine merely requires a reasonable degree of certainty for the statute to be upheld – not
absolute precision or mathematical exactitude.

A facial challenge is allowed to be made to a vague statute and to one which is overbroad
because of possible “chilling effect” upon protected speech. The theory is that “[w]hen
statutes regulate or proscribe speech and no readily apparent construction suggests itself as a
vehicle for rehabilitating the statutes in a single prosecution, the transcendent value of all
society of constitutionally protected expression is deemed to justify along attacks on overly
broad statutes with no requirement that the persons making the attack demonstrate that his
own conduct could not be regulated by a statute draw with narrow specificity. The possible
harm to society in permitting some unprotected speech to go unpunished is outweighed by the
possibility that the protected speech of others may be deterred and perceived grievances left
to fester because of possible inhibitory effects of overly broad statutes.

This do not apply to penal statutes. Criminal statutes have general in terorrem effect resulting
from their very existence, and, if facial challenge is allowed for this reason alone, the State
may well be prevented from enacting laws against socially harmful conduct. In the area of
criminal law, the law cannot take chances as in the area of free speech.

FACTS:

Former President Estrada and co-accused were charged for Plunder under RA 7080 (An Act Defining and
Penalizing the Crime of Plunder), as amended by RA 7659.

On the information, it was alleged that Estrada have received billions of pesos through any or a combination or
a series of overt or criminal acts, or similar schemes or means thereby unjustly enriching himself or themselves
at the expense and to the damage of the Filipino people and the Republic of the Philippines.

Estrada questions the constitutionality of the Plunder Law since for him:

1. it suffers from the vice of vagueness

2. it dispenses with the "reasonable doubt" standard in criminal prosecutions

3. it abolishes the element of mens rea in crimes already punishable under The Revised Penal Code.

Office of the Ombudsman filed before the Sandiganbayan 8 separate Informations against petitioner.

Estrada filed an Omnibus Motion on the grounds of lack of preliminary investigation,


reconsideration/reinvestigation of offenses and opportunity to prove lack of probable cause but was denied.

Later on, the Sandiganbayan issued a Resolution in Crim. Case No. 26558 finding that a probable cause for the
offense of plunder exists to justify the issuance of warrants for the arrest of the accused.

Estrada moved to quash the Information in Criminal Case No. 26558 on the ground that the facts alleged
therein did NOT constitute an indictable offense since the law on which it was based was unconstitutional for
vagueness and that the Amended Information for Plunder charged more than one offense. Same was denied.

The questioned provisions of the petitioners are Secs. 1, par. (d), 2 and 4 of the Plunder Law which states that:

Section 1. x x x x (d) "Ill-gotten wealth" means any asset, property, business, enterprise or material possession of any person
within the purview of Section Two (2) hereof, acquired by him directly or indirectly through dummies, nominees, agents,
subordinates and/or business associates by any combination or series of the following means or similar schemes:
(1) Through misappropriation, conversion, misuse, or malversation of public funds or raids on the public treasury;
(2) By receiving, directly or indirectly, any commission, gift, share, percentage, kickbacks or any other form of pecuniary
benefit from any person and/or entity in connection with any government contract or project or by reason of the office or
position of the public office concerned;
(3) By the illegal or fraudulent conveyance or disposition of assets belonging to the National Government or any of its
subdivisions, agencies or instrumentalities, or government owned or controlled corporations and their subsidiaries;
(4) By obtaining, receiving or accepting directly or indirectly any shares of stock, equity or any other form of interest or
participation including the promise of future employment in any business enterprise or undertaking;
(5) By establishing agricultural, industrial or commercial monopolies or other combinations and/or implementation of
decrees and orders intended to benefit particular persons or special interests; or
(6) By taking advantage of official position, authority, relationship, connection or influence to unjustly enrich himself or
themselves at the expense and to the damage and prejudice of the Filipino people and the Republic of the Philippines.
Section 2. Definition of the Crime of Plunder, Penalties. - Any public officer who, by himself or in connivance with members
of his family, relatives by affinity or consanguinity, business associates, subordinates or other persons, amasses,
accumulates or acquires ill-gotten wealth through a combination or series of overt or criminal acts as described in Section
1 (d) hereof, in the aggregate amount or total value of at least fifty million pesos (P50,000,000.00) shall be guilty of the
crime of plunder and shall be punished by reclusion perpetua to death. Any person who participated with the said public
officer in the commission of an offense contributing to the crime of plunder shall likewise be punished for such offense. In
the imposition of penalties, the degree of participation and the attendance of mitigating and extenuating circumstances as
provided by the Revised Penal Code shall be considered by the court. The court shall declare any and all ill-gotten wealth
and their interests and other incomes and assets including the properties and shares of stocks derived from the deposit or
investment thereof forfeited in favor of the State (underscoring supplied).
Section 4. Rule of Evidence. - For purposes of establishing the crime of plunder, it shall not be necessary to prove each and
every criminal act done by the accused in furtherance of the scheme or conspiracy to amass, accumulate or acquire ill-
gotten wealth, it being sufficient to establish beyond reasonable doubt a pattern of overt or criminal acts indicative of the
overall unlawful scheme or conspiracy (underscoring supplied).
ISSUE:

WON the crime of plunder is unconstitutional for being vague?

HELD:

NO. As long as the law affords some comprehensible guide or rule that would inform those who are subject to
it what conduct would render them liable to its penalties, its validity will be sustained. The amended
information itself closely tracks the language of the law, indicating w/ reasonable certainty the various
elements of the offense w/c the petitioner is alleged to have committed.

We discern nothing in the foregoing that is vague or ambiguous that will confuse petitioner in his defense.

Petitioner, however, bewails the failure of the law to provide for the statutory definition of the terms
“combination” and “series” in the key phrase “a combination or series of overt or criminal acts. These
omissions, according to the petitioner, render the Plunder Law unconstitutional for being impermissibly vague
and overbroad and deny him the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him,
hence violative of his fundamental right to due process.

A statute is not rendered uncertain and void merely because general terms are used herein, or because of the
employment of terms without defining them.

A statute or act may be said to be vague when it lacks comprehensible standards that men of common
intelligence most necessarily guess at its meaning and differ in its application. In such instance, the statute is
repugnant to the Constitution in two (2) respects – it violates due process for failure to accord persons,
especially the parties targeted by it, fair notice of what conduct to avoid; and, it leaves law enforcers
unbridled discretion in carrying out its provisions and becomes an arbitrary flexing of the Government muscle.

A facial challenge is allowed to be made to vague statute and to one which is overbroad because of possible
“chilling effect” upon protected speech. The possible harm to society in permitting some unprotected speech
to go unpunished is outweighed by the possibility that the protected speech of others may be deterred and
perceived grievances left to fester because of possible inhibitory effects of overly broad statutes. But in
criminal law, the law cannot take chances as in the area of free speech.

at 9:41:00 AM