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Why the Supreme Court [should] NOT do the math?

IS THE legality of a legal provision subject to the passage of time? In Corpuz v. People (G.R. No. 180016, April 29, 2014), the Supreme Court delved into the constitutionality of Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC), which pertains to the definition of the crime of estafa and the penalty associated to it.

The obsolete legal provision was challenged vis-à-vis the equal protection clause and the prohibition against cruel and excessive punishment, both guaranteed under the Constitution. The Court affirmed the decision of the lower courts to convict Lito Corpuz of the crime of estafa and sentenced him to imprisonment for a period of 4 years and 2 months of prision correccional as minimum to 8 years of prision mayor as maximum, plus 1 year additional for every PhP 10,000 for a total of 18 years of imprisonment.

The case

The complainant, Tangcoy, entrusted certain jewelries amounting to PhP 98,000 to Corpuz for the purpose of selling them. Tangcoy waited for Corpuz to remit the sale proceeds or return of the jewelry but Corpuz failed to do so. The trial court convicted Corpuz, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Corpuz contended that the penalty imposed upon him by the court a quo violates the equal protection clause and the prohibition against oppressive and cruel punishment. Thus, he asked the Court to suspend the execution of the sentence or amend the same to accord respect to his constitutional rights.

Incremental penalty

The last sentence of Article 315 states that “if such amount exceeds the latter sum, the penalty provided in this paragraph shall be imposed in its maximum period, adding one year for each additional PhP 10,000, but the total penalty which may be imposed shall not exceed twenty years.”The last sentence is called an incremental penalty, where the punishment to be meted out to a convict increases as the amount involved in estafa gets higher. In the case at bar, given that the value of the property taken amounted to a total of PhP 98,000, Corpuz was convicted to serve imprisonment to a total of 18 years, in addition to the fines imposed.

Beyond the numbers

In ruling for the constitutionality of the assailed RPC provision, the Court explained that it has no authority to modify the range of penalties, as such would constitute judicial legislation. What the legislature’s perceived failure in amending the penalties provided for in the said crimes cannot be remedied through the Court’s decision.

The question of constitutionality raised by the petitioner is one of first impression. Hence, the case was referred to the court en banc for resolution. Amici curiae were invited to give comments on the said question.

Dean Jose Manuel Diokno of the De La Salle College of Law shared that the provision imposing an incremental penalty for the crime of estafa is unconstitutional for violating the equal protection clause. He provided a table outlining the rate of inflation from the 1932, the year the RPC was enacted, up to the present time. Diokno interposed that at the current rate of inflation, the fair rate for the incremental penalty would be at 1:100—meaning that the fair rate for an additional year of imprisonment at the current time should be pegged at PhP 100,000.

Meanwhile, Dean Sedfrey Candelaria of the Ateneo Law School stated that the assailed provision is partially constitutional, citing the case involving some Citibank employees, wherein the Supreme Court decided to void a provision in a law which would lead to oppression towards the workers.

It must be noted that estafa is categorized as a crime against property. This implies that the gravity of the crime is determined by the value of the object or money swindled. At the time when the RPC was enacted in 1932, the value of the peso was considerably higher compared to its present value, wherein devaluations may have been caused by inflation. Thus during that period, an additional year of imprisonment for every PhP 10,000 that exceeded the price of PhP 22,000 could be considered as fair punishment for the crime of estafa.

Transposing this to the prevailing currency levels, Corpuz would then serve a sentence similar to a person who swindles several millions of pesos. The provision for an incremental penalty for every Php10,000 creates absurdity. Further, the aggregate length of Corpuz’ sentence, which is 18 years, is almost equal to the penalty imposed for the crime of homicide. This leads to a somewhat unreasonable situations wherein a crime against property is on equal footing with penalties for crimes against persons.

It is undeniable that the law should be dynamic and reflective of the societal context it operates in. The question raised by Corpuz is not only novel, but one that has a wide range of implications. For instance, Article 311 of the RPC, which deals with theft, also provides the same rates for incremental penalties when deciding a convict’s period of imprisonment. Hence the same arguments may arise.

Ultimately, these provisions do not need to be voided or declared unconstitutional, as people who transgress the law must be meted out with penalities. However, the issues raised in Corpuz reveal the necessity to revise the RPC in order for the penal code to truly reflect the current conditions and avoid penalties shocking to conscience. While our justices may be great mathematicians and social scientists, it is not for the Court to quantify the wisdom of our laws, lest this result to judicial activism. P


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