Monday, May 18, 2009

THE WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS: An Introduction [The writ series part 2]

Constitutional Foundations

For a country which has not forgotten and is still haunted by the recesses of the infamous martial regime, the great premium afforded to protection of personal freedom and liberty is explicable. The writ of habeas corpus, an ancient writ known as the Great Writ of Liberty, is the first and probably the most famous means of invoking constitutional rights against deprivation of personal liberty before the courts of justice.

This constitutional guarantee for the availability of the writ in the country however roots itself way before the martial law regime. The Philippine Bill of 1902 appears to have made the first imprimatur. From then on, the writ of habeas corpus has undoubtedly undergone radical changes under the 1987 Constitution. Our present constitution prohibits the suspension of the privilege of the writ except in cases of great national stress1. It is to be noted that it is the privilege of the writ that is being suspended in certain cases and not the writ itself. The Constitutional Commission, finding justifications from the experience under the authoritarian rule of former President Marcos, incorporated into the fundamental law new safeguards intended to give a better protection to liberty. The power to suspend the privilege now has ceased to be an almost executive prerogative.2

The 1987 Constitution also has authorized the Supreme Court to promulgate rules to protect constitutional rights thus giving birth to Rule 102 of the Rules of Court extending, except as otherwise provide by law, to all cases of illegal confinement or detention by which any person is deprived of his liberty. In the second part of the same provision, however, habeas corpus may also be resorted to or extends in cases where "the rightful custody of any person is withheld from the person entitled thereto." Thus, although the writ of habeas corpus ought not to be issued if the restraint is voluntary, the Supreme Court have held time and again that the said writ is the proper legal remedy to enable parents to regain the custody of a minor child even if the latter be in the custody of a third person of her own free will.3 In relation to habeas corpus cases for the custody of minors, the Supreme Court has also promulgated A.M. No. 03-04-04-SC, April 22, 2003.

Purposes and Objectives

In general, the purpose of the writ of habeas corpus is to determine whether or not a particular person is legally held. A prime specification of an application for a writ of habeas corpus, in fact, is an actual and effective, and not merely nominal or moral, illegal restraint of liberty. The writ of habeas corpus was devised and exists as a speedy and effectual remedy to relieve persons from unlawful restraint, and as the best and only sufficient defense of personal freedom. 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. 4 Resort to the writ is not to inquire into the criminal act of which a complaint is made but unto the right of liberty, notwithstanding the act, and the immediate purpose to be served is relief from illegal restraint.5 Thus, held by the Supreme Court in one case, “the primary, if not the only object of the writ of habeas corpus ad subjuciendum is to determine the legality of the restraint under which a person is held.”

In custody cases involving minors, the question of illegal and involuntary restraint of liberty is not the underlying rationale for the availability of the writ as a remedy; rather, the writ of habeas corpus is prosecuted for the purpose of determining the right of custody over a child. 6
Proceedings in habeas corpus however are separate and distinct from the main case from which the proceedings spring. In fact, they rarely touch the merits of the case and require no pronouncement with respect thereto. The proceedings merely deal with the detention of the prisoner and stop with the authority by virtue of which he is detained.7

Sufficiency of Rules

Habeas corpus is a writ directed to a person detaining another, commanding the former to produce the body of the latter at a designated time and place.8 As mentioned, the prime specification of an application for a writ of habeas corpus is restraint of liberty. And the Supreme Court has held time and again that any restraint which will preclude freedom of action is sufficient. Fundamentally, in order to justify the grant of the writ of habeas corpus, the restraint of liberty must be in the nature of an illegal and involuntary deprivation of freedom of action. This is the basic requisite under the first part of Section 1, Rule 102, of the Revised Rules of Court. It can be opined however that such basic requisite is encompassing in itself. To be sure, the standard of “lawfulness or legality” is a broad and elastic one.9 To illustrate this notion, the Supreme Court has held, “Freedom may be lost due to external moral compulsion, to be founded or groundless fear, to erroneous belief in the existence of the will. If the actual effect of such psychological spell is to place a person at the mercy of another, the victim is entitled to the protection of courts of justice as much as the individual who is illegally duress of liberty by deprived or physical coercion.” 10
With the extension via Rule 102 of the Rules of Court, the writ has been recognized as serving to provide a “prompt and efficacious remedy for whatever society deems to be intolerable restraint,” according to the Supreme Court. In fact, habeas corpus has been used as a (1) means to effect release from the custody of a private party including custody of a minor child; (2) for the release from detention by virtue of an unlawful arrest; (3) for release from confinement by immigration authorities prior to deportation; (4) to question the legality of petitioner’s arrest; (5) to effect release from imprisonment of civil contempt; or for contempt of Congress; 6) as a means of challenging duration of confinement as affected by prisoner’s good-conduct credits; (7) as a means of attack on orders for commitment to mental institutions; and 8) aliens’ means of challenging exclusion and deportation orders.11
As the remedy of habeas corpus finds justification in every intolerable restraint, encompassing and broad at it is, society has often times abused if not misused the remedy. Over time, the writ has become primarily a means by one court of general jurisdiction exercises post-conviction review over the judgment of another court of like authority. In other words, habeas corpus proceeding is seen as a mode of collateral attack at a final judgment of conviction.12 Thus held by the Supreme Court, habeas corpus is not in the nature of a writ of error; nor intended as substitute for the trial court’s function. It cannot take the place of appeal, certiorari or writ of error. The writ cannot be used to investigate and consider questions of error that might be raised relating to procedure or on the merits. The inquiry in a habeas corpus proceeding is addressed to the question of whether the proceedings and the assailed order are, for any reason, null and void. The writ is not ordinarily granted where the law provides for other remedies in the regular course, and in the absence of exceptional circumstances. 13 In the early case of Abriol v. Homeres, for example, the Court stated the general rule that the writ of habeas corpus is not a writ of error, and should not be thus used. The writ of habeas corpus, whereas permitting a collateral challenge of the jurisdiction of the court or tribunal issuing the process or judgment by which an individual is deprived of his liberty, cannot be distorted by extending the inquiry to mere errors of trial courts acting squarely within their jurisdiction. The reason for this is explained very simply in the case of Velasco v. Court of Appeals: a habeas corpus petition reaches the body, but not the record of the case. A record must be allowed to remain extant, and cannot be revised, modified, altered or amended by the simple expedient of resort to habeas corpus proceedings.

In many instances, the writ is being availed of even before trial. To counter and warn such errant avail of the writ, the Supreme Court has held that, habeas corpus should not be granted in advance of trial. The orderly course of trial must be pursued and the usual remedies exhausted before resorting to the writ where exceptional circumstances are extant.14 In another case, it was held that habeas corpus cannot be issued as a writ of error or as a means of reviewing errors of law and irregularities not involving the questions of jurisdiction occurring during the course of the trial, subject to the caveat that constitutional safeguards of human life and liberty must be preserved, and not destroyed.
To stress further, the Highest Court also held that where restraint is under legal process, mere errors and irregularities, which do not render the proceedings void, are not grounds for relief by habeas corpus because in such cases, the restraint is not illegal.

The broad provision however is tried to be safeguarded by the Supreme Court herself through jurisprudence. After all, decisions of the Supreme Court become part of the law of the land. In fact, in the following cases, the Court, in some way set boundaries on habeas corpus petitions. In Feria v. Court of Appeals the Court was inclined to allow the presentation of new evidence in a petition for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, this was an exceptional situation. In that case, the Court laid down the general rule, which states that the burden of proving illegal restraint by the respondent rests on the petitioner who attacks such restraint. Where the return is not subject to exception, that is, where it sets forth a process which, on its face, shows good ground for the detention of the prisoner, it is incumbent on petitioner to allege and prove new matter that tends to invalidate the apparent effect of such process. In the recent case of Calvan v. Court of Appeals, the Court summarized the scope of review allowable in a petition for the issuance of the writ of habeas corpus. The inquiry on a writ of habeas corpus would be addressed, not to errors committed by a court within its jurisdiction, but to the question of whether the proceeding or judgment under which a person has been restrained is a complete nullity. The probe may thus proceed to check on the power and authority, itself an equivalent test of jurisdiction, of the court or the judge to render the order that so serves as the basis of imprisonment or detention. It is the nullity of an assailed judgment of conviction which makes it susceptible to collateral attack through the filing of a petition for the issuance of the writ of habeas corpus.

In the end, the Supreme Court has but one thing to convey, “A writ of habeas corpus, which is regarded as a “palladium of liberty” is a prerogative writ which does not issue as a matter of right but in the sound discretion of the court or judge. It, is, however, a writ of right on proper formalities being made by proof. Jurisprudence has undoubtedly limited the elasticity of the provision to a point. However the promulgation of implementing guidelines which would give light to the coverage of the rule, prohibitions on the use of the remedy, the clear definition of what constitutes “illegal restraint on liberty” or “under custody,” among others would be highly appreciated.

Who May File Petition?

The rule provides that every person unlawfully imprisoned or restrained of his liberty under any pretense of whatever may prosecute a writ of habeas corpus, in order to inquire into the lawful cause of such imprisonment or restraint. Sec. 3 of Rule 102 of the Rules of Court merely states that the petition may be “signed and verified either by the party for whose relief it is intended or by some person on his behalf.” This implies that any person who has a legally justified interest in the freedom of the person whose liberty is restrained or who shows some authorization to make the application has a standing to file the petition. As an exception however, if the application for the writ is made in the prisoner’s behalf by a third person but the former repudiates the action taken, the writ will be denied. The rule surely affords the detained person each and every chance to counter his detention by himself or on his behalf. This rule finds justification in the interpretation that technically, habeas corpus proceeding is in no sense a suit between private parties. It is an inquisition by the government, at the instance of an individual, but in the name and capacity of the sovereign. It is analogized to a proceeding in rem for the purpose of fixing the status of a person. 15

Form of Petition

All that is required of a habeas corpus petition is that it be signed and verified by either the party for whose relief it is intended or by some person on his behalf and to set forth and allege the facts relating to the petitioner’s detention. Taking into consideration the importance and urgency of the subject matter of a habeas corpus petition, its form under the Rules is of scant consideration. In fact, in one case, the Court has ruled that even a petition-letter will do. On these aspects, we subscribe the rule to be at a certain level, sufficient. However, no harm can be done if this too can be bettered in an implementing rule.

Courts have concurrent jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions except in cases of custody of minors. It may be granted by the Supreme Court or any member thereof or a Regional Trial Court or a Judge hereof. In the absence of all the Regional Trial Judges in a province or city, any Metropolitan, Municipal or Municipal Circuit Trial Judge may hear and decide the petitions but Regional Trial Courts may issue writs of habeas corpus enforceable only in their respective regions.16 At this point, suggestions have been in some legal discourses about habeas corpus petitions that the jurisdiction to entertain such petitions as post-conviction remedy should be similar to Rule 47 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, relating to annulment of judgment or final orders and resolutions which is necessarily in consonance with the doctrine of hierarchy courts. It is suggested that this would avoid the unseemly and anomalous spectacle of having one court review on habeas the final judgment of a co-equal and coordinate court.17

Habeas Corpus Proceeding in Case of Custody of Minors.

As to habeas corpus proceedings on custody minors, there can be no debate that the subsequent rule promulgated (A.M. No. 03-04-04-SC, April 22, 2003) is but a reinforcement of our laws’ adherence to the protection of children. The sufficiency or insufficiency of the rules are cured and supplemented by other existing laws. In that regard the Child and Youth Welfare Code unequivocally provides that in all questions regarding the care and custody, among others, of the child, his welfare shall be the paramount consideration. In the same vein, the Family Code authorizes the courts to, if the welfare of the child so demands, deprive the parents concerned of parental authority over the child or adopt such measures as may be proper under the circumstances.

Habeas Corpus Proceeding in Deportation Cases

While however the promulgation of an independent set of implementing rules for habeas corpus proceedings in case of custody of minors has been answered via A.M. No. 03-04-04-SC, April 22, 2003, it is our submission however that an separate rule too on habeas corpus proceedings on deportation cases, i.,e, for release from confinement by immigration authorities prior to deportation and aliens’ means of challenging exclusion and deportation orders also be had in the future. After all, the question on whether or not there is illegal restraint on this matter is subjective to the powers and authority of the Bureau of Immigration. To a point, since there is appreciation of our immigration law, it is different from the other issues cognizable in a habeas corpus petition. Habeas corpus, not prohibition, is the proper remedy for reviewing proceedings for the deportation of aliens. 18 The Bureau of Immigration is without authority to issue a warrant for the arrest of a person prior to an order of deportation but the illegality may be cured by the subsequent filing of deportation proceedings. In one case, the Supreme Court has held that, “The writ of habeas corpus cannot be issued in cases in which the Bureau of Immigration has duly ordered the deportation of undocumented aliens, specifically those found guilty of illegally entering the Philippines with the use of tampered and previously cancelled passports.” 19 Also, Court has held, “When an alien is detained by the Bureau of Immigration for deportation pursuant to an order of deportation by the Deportation Board, the Regional Trial Courts have no power to release such alien on bail even in habeas corpus proceeding because there is no law authorizing it.”20 These guidelines, in our end, can be envisioned in an independent implementing rule

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