Flight and plight

“Flight is an admission of guilt,” exclaimed Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. upon learning that his half-sister, Maria Ramona Bautista, sneaked out of the country the day after her full blood brother Ramgen Bautista was shot and stabbed to death. The police tagged Ramona and her younger brother Ramon Joseph (RJ) as prime suspects in Ramgen’s murder.

Ramona’s flight. During an interview, the senator said: “She [Ramona] should face this. Her brother RJ is in jail. With her departure, it is like telling everyone that the accusations are true.”

If Senator Revilla is correct, does that make Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, guilty of the double murder of Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and Dacer’s driver Emmanuel Corbito? Like Ramona, Lacson fled on Jan. 5, 2010 before charges against him could be filed in, and a warrant of arrest issued by, the courts. So, too, is the desire of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to fly abroad an “admission of guilt”?

Per our Supreme Court, “Flight means the act of evading the course of justice by voluntarily withdrawing oneself to avoid arrest or detention or the institution or continuance of criminal proceedings. The unexplained flight of the accused may, as a general rule, be taken as evidence tending to establish guilt.” (People v. Ayupan, Feb. 13, 2002)

To recall, RJ Bautista and two other suspects, Roy Francis Tolisora and Michael Nartea, were promptly arrested and taken into police custody. But Ramona – tagged as a co-conspirator –was allowed to fly to Hong Kong en route to Turkey, for the simplistic reason that no warrant of arrest or hold-departure order had been issued against her.

To the plaint of RJ’s lawyer that his client was detained illegally without a court-issued warrant, the Parañaque police,  citing the rule on “in flagrante” and “hot pursuit” arrests,  reasoned that: (1) an offense – the killing of Ramgen – had just been committed; and, (2) the police had probable cause to believe that RJ had committed it.

If that were so, why then did they not also arrest Ramona? Had they done so, there would have been no gnashing of teeth over Ramona’s flight, no finger pointing on why no hold-departure order was issued, no need to cancel Ramona’s Philippine passport, no need for an Interpol “red notice” and no need for the more intricate process of extraditing her from Turkey.

Lacson’s flight. Note however that flight is damning only when “unexplained”; only when unrebutted by contrary evidence. Though admitting that “evading arrest may be legally difficult to justify,” Lacson was in hiding for 14 months, from his “disappearance” on Jan. 4, 2010, until he “reappeared” on March 26, 2011. He thus avoided detention as a consequence of the non-bailable double murder case filed against him a month after he fled.

Lacson aborted his flight only after the charges against him were “dismissed” and the arrest warrants “nullified” by the Court of Appeals (CA) on Feb. 3, 2011. By tanking the charges though Lacson was still at large, the CA encouraged lawlessness and disrespect for the rule of law. However, the CA explained that the Supreme Court allows petitions for certiorari even when the accused “is at large and evading arrest.”

For Lacson, however, the issue of whether he could be indicted anew for the Dacer-Corbito case is still open since the CA’s decision was based on “lack of probable cause,” not on an acquittal after Lacson had been arraigned and pleaded “not guilty.” The defense of double jeopardy attaches only after the accused has been arraigned.

Gloria’s plight. Compared to Lacson’s, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s plight is a bit more complicated. She cannot go abroad due to a watch-list order (WLO) of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. In her Supreme Court petition filed on Nov. 8, Arroyo  insists that her constitutional right to travel cannot be “impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety or public health, as may be provided by law.” Au contraire, De Lima cites Department of Justice Circular 41, promulgated ironically during GMA’s reign, authorizing her to issue the WLO.

To be sure, the oft-cited Supreme Court decision on the right to travel (Marcos v. Manglapus, Sept. 15, 1989) barred the return of former President Ferdinand Marcos for reasons of “national security” even when not “provided by law.” This policy-oriented interpretation of the Constitution tried to balance this constitutional right with the national interest.

GMA’s petition asks for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to enable her to fly while her case pends. Clearly however, an ex-parte TRO will practically decide the whole case without any hearing. So it may be best to require respondents to comment on the petition and to call for an early oral argument. This, I think, is the fair and transparent way of handling this paramount case with far-reaching consequences.

I believe that every litigation is unique and should be decided based on its specific context and facts. As aptly put by US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, general propositions do not decide specific cases. Yet, the flight and plight of Ramona, Ping and Gloria find some commonality and traction in the right to travel of suspects in capital, non-bailable offenses, suspects who may not want to be detained while their cases slowly grind.

Is the government really helpless in preventing flight on the suspects’ invocation of their right to travel? Can this general invocation decide their plight sans their unique context? The oral argument could provide some answers. Abangan!

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