An Unjustly Vexatious Law
21 May 2002
If you are asked to avoid committing “unjust vexation” in the same way as you should avoid committing theft, murder, rape or any other crime, would you know what to avoid? Would you be in a position to know exactly what particular acts or omissions you should avoid? I guess you wouldn’t! Unlike the crimes of theft, murder and rape that are specifically defined in the Revised Penal Code, one may search for the definition of the crime of unjust vexation but it is conspicuously absent. How can you therefore expect a person to avoid something that is not even defined by our criminal statutes?
Unjust vexation is punished under the 2nd paragraph of Article 287 of the Revised Penal Code that says:
“Any other coercions or unjust vexations shall be punished by arresto menor or a fine ranging from 5 pesos to 200 pesos, or both.”
Professors of Criminal Law justify this apparent lack of definition saying that unjust vexation is a catch-all crime that applies whenever the act or omission complained of does not specifically fall under any other provision of the Revised Penal Code. But we do not even allow common-law crimes, so how could we countenance the existence of having catch-all crimes in the face of the due process guaranty?
An examination of the annals of our jurisprudence would show that Art. 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code has been used to punish a great variety of different acts:
The aforementioned cases decided by the Philippine Supreme Court readily show that Art. 287, Par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code has not been used to prosecute a well-defined or specific criminal act. Instead, it was used as a “catch-all” provision to prosecute acts which are not expressly made criminal by any other provision of the Revised Penal Code. Isn’t this anathema to criminal due process that requires notice of what specific act or omission is punished by law?
It will not burn too much brain cells to realize that Article 287, paragraph 2 of the Revised Penal Code that punishes “unjust vexation” suffers from congenital defects and should be declared unconstitutional for the following reasons:
A CRIMINAL OR PENAL LEGISLATION MUST CLEARLY DEFINE OR SPECIFY THE PARTICULAR ACT OR ACTS PUNISHED.
It is a well-established doctrine that a criminal or penal legislation must clearly define or specify the particular acts or omissions punished. As early as 1916, in the case of UNITED STATES VS. LULING, 34 Phil. 725, the Supreme Court had the occasion to hold that:
“In some of the States, as well as in England, there exist what are known as common law offenses. In the Philippine Islands no act is a crime unless it is made so by statute. The state having the right to declare what acts are criminal, within certain well defined limitations, has a right to specify what act or acts shall constitute a crime, as well as what act or acts shall constitute a crime, as well as what proof shall constitute prima facie evidence of guilt, and then to put upon the defendant the burden of showing that such act or acts are innocent and are not committed with any criminal intent or intention." (cited in the fairly recent case of Dizon-Pamintuan v. People of the Philippines, G.R. No. 111426, July 11, 1994) (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
Two years later, this was followed by a scholarly exposition by Justice Johnson in the case of In re: R. MCCULLOCH DICK, 38 Phil. 41, April 16, 1918, where he stated that:
“In the Philippine Islands no act is a crime unless it is made so by law. The law must specify the particular act or acts constituting the crime. If that were not so, the inhabitants could not know when they would be liable to be arrested, tried and punished. Otherwise the mandatory provisions of the law, that all criminal laws shall be prescribed, would prove to be a pitfall and a snare. The inhabitants of the Philippine Islands, whether citizens, denizens or friendly aliens, have a right to know, in advance of arrest, trial and punishment, the particular acts for which they may be so tried. They cannot be arrested and tried, and then be informed for the first time that their acts have been subsequently made a crime, and be punished therefor. x x x” (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
Justice (later Chief Justice) Fernando in his concurring opinion in PEOPLE v. CABURAL, G.R. No. L-34105, February 4, 1983, also made a similar observation, stating that:
“The maxim Nullum crimen nulla poena sine lege has its roots in history. It is in accordance with both centuries of civil law and common law tradition. Moreover, it is an indispensable corollary to a regime of liberty enshrined in our Constitution. It is of the essence then that while anti-social acts should be penalized, there must be a clear definition of the punishable offense as well as the penalty that may be imposed - a penalty, to repeat, that can be fixed by the legislative body, and the legislative body alone. So constitutionalism mandates, with its stress on jurisdictio rather than guvernaculum. The judiciary as the dispenser of justice through law must be aware of the limitation on its own power.” (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
The rationale of the doctrine that a criminal or penal legislation must clearly define or specify the particular act or acts punished is ably explained by the United Stated Supreme Court in the case of LANZETTA v. STATE OF NEW JERSEY, 306 U.S. 451, where it held that:
“It is the statute, not the accusation under it, that prescribes the rule to govern conduct and warns against transgression. x x x No one may be required at peril of life, liberty or property to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes. All are entitled to be informed as to what the State commands or forbids. x x x” (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
ARTICLE 287, PAR. 2 OF THE REVISED PENAL CODE CONDEMNS NO SPECIFIC ACT OR OMISSION! THEREFORE, IT DOES NOT DEFINE ANY CRIME OR FELONY.
Paragraph 2 of Article 287 of the Revised Penal Code does not define, much less specify, the acts constituting or deemed included in the term “unjust vexations” resulting to making the said provision a sort of a “catch-all” provision patently offensive to the due process clause.
The right to define and punish crimes is an attribute of sovereignty. Each State has the authority, under its police power, to define and punish crimes and to lay down the rules of criminal procedure. Pursuant to this power to define and punish crimes, the State may not punish an act as a crime unless it is first defined in a criminal statute so that the people will be forewarned as to what act is punishable. The people cannot be left guessing at the meaning of criminal statutes.
Article 3 of the Revised Penal Code defines FELONIES (delitos) as “acts or omissions” punishable by law. Article 287, Par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code condemns no specific act or omission! THEREFORE, IT DOES NOT DEFINE ANY CRIME OR FELONY! Instead, any and all kind of acts that are not specifically covered by any other provision of the Revised Penal Code and which may cause annoyance, irritation, vexation, torment, distress or disturbance to the mind of the person to whom it is directed may be punished as unjust vexation.
ART. 287, PAR. 2 OF THE REVISED PENAL CODE SUFFERS FROM A CONGENITAL DEFECT OF VAGUENESS AND MUST BE STRICKEN DOWN AS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
The term "unjust vexation" is a highly imprecise and relative term that has no common law meaning or settled definition by prior judicial or administrative precedents. Thus, for its vagueness and overbreadth, said provision violates due process in that it does not give fair warning or sufficient notice of what it seeks to penalize.
This kind of challenge to the constitutionality of a penal statute on ground of vagueness and overbreadth is not entirely novel in our jurisdiction. In an en banc decision in the case of GONZALES v. COMELEC, G.R. No. L-27833, April 18, 1969, re: Constitutionality of Republic Act No. 4880, the Supreme Court ruled that the terms “election campaign” and “partisan political activity” which are punished in R.A. 4880 would have been void for their vagueness were it not for the express enumeration of the acts deemed included in the said terms. The Supreme Court held:
“The limitation on the period of "election campaign" or "partisan political activity" calls for a more intensive scrutiny. According to Republic Act No. 4880: "It is unlawful for any person whether or not a voter or candidate, or for any group or association of persons, whether or not a political party or political committee, to engage in an election campaign or partisan political activity except during the period of one hundred twenty days immediately preceding an election involving a public office voted for at large and ninety days immediately preceding an election for any other elective public office. The term 'candidate' refers to any person aspiring for or seeking an elective public office regardless of whether or not said person has already filed his certificate of candidacy or has been nominated by any political party as its candidate. The term 'election campaign' of 'partisan political activity' refers to acts designed to have a candidate elected or not or promote the candidacy of a person or persons to a public office . . ."
“If that is all there is to that provision, it suffers from the fatal constitutional infirmity of vagueness and may be stricken down. x x x”
x x x x x x x x x
“There are still constitutional questions of a serious character then to be faced. The practices which the act identifies with "election campaign" or "partisan political activity" must be such that they are free from the taint of being violative of free speech, free press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. What removes the sting from constitutional objection of vagueness is the enumeration of the acts deemed included in the terms "election campaign" or "partisan political activity." (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
Article 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code punishes “unjust vexations” and that is all there is to it! As such, applying the incontestable logic of the Supreme Court in said case of GONZALES v. COMELEC would lead us to the inescapable conclusion that said penal provision suffers from the fatal constitutional infirmity of vagueness and must be stricken down as unconstitutional.
In the case of CONNALLY V. GENERAL CONSTRUCTION CO., 269 U.S. 385, cited by our own Supreme Court en banc in the case of Ermita-Malate Hotel and Motel Operators Assn., Inc. v. City Mayor of Manila, G.R. No. L-24693, July 31, 1967), the United States Supreme Court ruled:
“That the terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties is a well-recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law; and a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.” (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
In fact, it is worst in the case of the 2nd Paragraph of Article 287 of the Revised Penal Code because it punishes “unjust vexations” without even defining or enumerating the acts constituting the said crime thus leaving men of common intelligence necessarily guessing at its meaning and differing as to its application in complete disregard of constitutional due process.
Our Supreme Court in the case of U.S. v. NAG TANG HO, 43 Phil. 1, held that one cannot be convicted of a violation of a law that fails to set up an ascertainable standard of guilt. Said ruling cites the landmark case of U.S. v. L. COHEN GROCERY CO., 255 U.S. 81, where the United States Supreme Court in striking down Section 4 of the Federal Food Control Act of August 10, 1917, as amended, as unconstitutional, declared that:
“The sole remaining inquiry, therefore, is the certainty or uncertainty of the text in question, that is, whether the words 'that it is hereby made unlawful for any person willfully ... to make any unjust or unreasonable rate or charge in handling or dealing in or with any necessaries,' constituted a fixing by Congress of an ascertainable standard of guilt and are adequate to inform persons accused of violation thereof of the nature and cause of the accusation against them. That they are not, we are of opinion, so clearly results from their mere statement as to render elaboration on the subject wholly unnecessary. OBSERVE THAT THE SECTION FORBIDS NO SPECIFIC OR DEFINITE ACT. It confines the subject matter of the investigation which it authorizes to no element essentially inhering in the transaction as to which it provides. It leaves open, therefore, the widest conceivable inquiry, the scope of which no one can foresee and the result of which no one can foreshadow or adequately guard against. In fact, we see no reason to doubt the soundness of the observation of the court below in its opinion to the effect that, to attempt to enforce the section would be the exact equivalent of an effort to carry out a statute which in terms merely penalized and punished all acts detrimental to the public interest when unjust and unreasonable in the estimation of the court x x x” (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
In COATES v. CITY OF CINCINNATI, 402 U.S. 611, the United States Supreme Court passed upon the issue of constitutionality of a Cincinnati, Ohio, ordinance that provides that:
"It shall be unlawful for three or more persons to assemble, except at a public meeting of citizens, on any of the sidewalks, street corners, vacant lots, or mouths of alleys, and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by, or occupants of adjacent buildings. Whoever violates any of the provisions of this section shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars ($50.00), or be imprisoned not less than one (1) nor more than thirty (30) days or both." Section 901-L6, Code of Ordinances of the City of Cincinnati. (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
In hammering down the constitutionality of the above-cited Cincinnati, Ohio ordinance in its landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court held that:
“Conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others. Thus, the ordinance is vague, not in the sense that it requires a person to conform his conduct to an imprecise but comprehensible normative standard, but rather in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all. As a result, "men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning." Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391
“It is said that the ordinance is broad enough to encompass many types of conduct clearly within the city's constitutional power to prohibit. And so, indeed, it is. The city is free to prevent people from blocking sidewalks, obstructing traffic, littering streets, committing assaults, or engaging in countless other forms of antisocial conduct. It can do so through the enactment and enforcement of ordinances directed with reasonable specificity toward the conduct to be prohibited. It cannot constitutionally do so through the enactment and enforcement of an ordinance whose violation may entirely depend upon whether or not a policeman is annoyed. “ (emphasis and underscoring supplied)
Same thing can be said of Art. 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code that punishes “unjust vexation.” As previously shown, the term “unjust vexation” is broad enough to encompass many types of acts or conduct. But while these acts of types of conduct are within the State’s police power to prohibit and punish, it cannot however constitutionally do so when its violation may entirely depend upon whether or not another is vexed or annoyed by said act or conduct and whether or not said act or conduct is unjust is the estimation of the court.
ARTICLE 287, PAR. 2 OF THE REVISED PENAL CODE IS AN INVALID DELEGATION OF THE LEGISLATIVE POWER TO DEFINE WHAT ACTS SHOULD BE HELD BE CRIMINAL AND PUNISHABLE
The failure of Art. 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code to define or specify the act or omission that it punishes likewise amounts to an invalid delegation by Congress of its legislative power to the courts to determine what acts should be held criminal and punishable. Potestas delegata non delegare potest. What has been delegated cannot be delegated. This doctrine is based on the ethical principle that such delegated power constitutes not only a right but a duty to be performed by the delegate through the instrumentality of his own judgment and not through the intervening mind of another (United States v. Barrias, 11 Phil. 327, 330).
Congress alone has power to define crimes. This power as an attribute of sovereignty may not be delegated to the courts. When a criminal legislation leaves the halls of Congress, it must be complete in itself in that it must clearly define and specify the acts or omissions deemed punishable; and when it reaches the courts, there must be nothing left for the latter to do, except to determine whether person or persons indicted are guilty of committing the said acts or omissions defined and made punishable by Congress. Otherwise, borrowing the immortal words of Justice Isagani Cruz in Ynot v. Intermediate Appellate Court (148 SCRA 659), the law becomes a “roving commission,” a wide and sweeping authority that is not “canalized within banks that keep it from overflowing,” in short a clearly profligate and therefore invalid delegation of legislative powers.
Art. 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code fails to set an immutable and ascertainable standard of guilt, but leaves such standard to the variant and changing views and notions of different judges or courts which are called upon to enforce it. Instead of defining the specific acts or omissions punished, it leaves to the courts the power to determine what acts or types of conduct constitute “unjust vexation.” Moreover, liability under the said provision is also made dependent upon the varying degrees of sensibility and emotions of people. It depends upon whether or not another is vexed or annoyed by said act or conduct. As previously intimated, one cannot be convicted of a violation of a law that fails to set up an immutable and an ascertainable standard of guilt.
From the foregoing, it appears that the law that was intended to punish unjust vexation turns out to be an unjustly vexatious law. Art. 287, par. 2 of the Revised Penal Code that punishes “unjust vexations” is unconstitutional on its face for its fatal failure to forbid a specific or definite act or conduct. It suffers from congenital vagueness and overbreadth which are anathema to constitutional due process and the right of the accused to be informed of the nature of the offense charged.
Moreover, by leaving it to the judiciary to determine the “justness” or “unjustness” of an act or conduct that is not clearly defined or specified by law constitutes a fixing by Congress of an unascertainable standard of guilt and therefore an invalid delegation, if not an abdication, of legislative power.
As such, it is now high time that this unjustly vexatious law be declared unconstitutional and be wiped out from our statute books. Lawyers defending a client for “unjust vexation” should raise this constitutional challenge against this unjustly vexatious law and they are free to cite the arguments articulated herein.
Art. 287, par. 2 cannot be a basis of any criminal prosecution, much less conviction. An unspeakable injustice was therefore done to all those who were convicted under this unjustly vexatious law. If this law is not declared unconstitutional by our Supreme Court or is not immediately repealed by Congress, many persons would still fall prey to its snare unaware.
Copyright © 2005-2007 Atty. Ralph A. Sarmiento
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