QC urban poor face trial, as other quarantine 'violators' cleared under 'broad' law

The 21 urban poor residents of San Roque in Quezon City have run to another court to avoid trial for alleged quarantine breach, questioning a law that has already been deemed too broad for this offense by other judicial authorities. 

The law is Republic Act 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases Act, product of a Department of Justice (DOJ) pronouncement at the start of lockdown, and which has now created a scene where different bodies have interpreted the same law differently.

The San Roque 21 were arrested in a violent dispersal on April 1, 2020, after residents went out of their homes expecting and demanding food aid. They were charged for quarantine breach under RA 11332, illegal assembly, disobedience to authorities, and violating the Bayanihan Law.

Over the course of lockdown, several courts and prosecutors in Luzon have junked cases under RA 11332, calling it too broad. 

But where other "violators" clinched outright dismissals, some not even reaching court like Senator Koko Pimentel, the San Roque 21 have taken the gutsy move of questioning the order of their judge in another court.

 "Why then are the petitioners here being discriminated against?" said a petition for certiorari filed by the San Roque 21 on Monday, February 15, before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 93, a copy of which was obtained by Rappler on Thursday, February 18.

Different rulings

Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court (MeTC) Branch 38 under Judge John Boomsri Sy Rodolfo handles the San Roque 21 case, but he denied their motion to quash in September 2020, and the motion for reconsideration in November 2020, effectively upholding the charge at this point.

Judge Rodolfo did not make a specific discussion of RA 11332 in his order, but he said "the Court agrees with the prosecution that the accused were validly arrested even in the absence of  a warrant."

"While the rest of the residents of Metro Manila, other than essential personnel, were directed to stay at home through the various issuances of the President of the Republic, the accused appear to be outside of their respective residences," said Judge Rodolfo in his September 2020 order.

The San Roque 21 alleged that Judge Rodolfo committed grave abuse of discretion in the certiorari filed before the QC RTC.

The San Roque 21 were charged under Section 9(e) of RA 11332 that punishes the "non-cooperation of the person or entities identified as having the notifiable disease, or affected by the health event of public concern."

It was Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra who announced at the start of lockdown that quarantine violators may be arrested and charged under this law. His spokesperson later explained that Section 9(e) covers different people.

QC Prosecutor Jerome Christopher Feria followed that interpretation in the San Roque 21 case, saying in his opposition that "logically, since the whole Philippines was declared to be under a state of public health emergency, persons within the country are considered to be affected by the health event of public concern."

"Consequently, everyone, including the accused, is expected to cooperate with the orders of the government and failure to do so constitutes violation of Section 9(e) of the said law," Feria said.

But different courts and prosecutors – even the state prosecutors at the DOJ headquarters – have limited the use of this "broad law." Human rights lawyers have previously said Section 9(e) is too broad is it basically covers everyone.

At least 3 cases of RA 11332 were outrightly dismissed by a court in Pasig, saying "it is too broad and ambiguous to the point that the specific punishable act is being left to the discretion of the law enforcer." 

"There is no clear definition of the 'non-cooperation' sought to be penalized and no identification of the activities requiring cooperation. To uphold the prosecution on this point would be doing violence to due process and to the rule that penal laws are to be construed strictly against the State and liberally in favor of the accused," said Pasig MeTC Branch 72 Judge Rolando De Guzman in  a September 2020 decision obtained by Rappler.

"Non-cooperation by failing to stay at home does not constitute or is not contemplated as a prohibited act under Section 9 (e) of RA 11332. Had the legislature intended to extend its coverage to failure to stay at home when quarantine is in effect, it could have included it in the enumeration of prohibited acts," Judge De Guzman said in another decision.

The Pasig cases involved people either caught out of their homes during the hard lockdown without an essential task, or those caught outside without a mask.

A prosecutor in Marikina also junked the RA 11332 case of 10 feeding program volunteers, who, like the San Roque 21, were sued not only for breaching quarantine, but also for illegal assembly. The volunteers, like the San Roque 21, also allegedly brought placards.

"There is lack of probable cause to charge respondents of Section 9 of RA 11332...[as] none of the foregoing circumstances are present in this case," said Marikina Prosecutor David Cadit Jr in a resolution dated October 20, 2020, a copy of which was released to media only on Wednesday, February 17.

Prosecutor Cadit also dismissed the complaints of illegal assembly and disobedience to authorities against the Marikina feeders.

Much earlier in May 2020, Norzagaray Municipal Trial Court Judge Julie Rita Suarez-Badillo cleared activists of RA 11332 charges, saying Section 9(D) of the law does not cover activists who were accused of distributing fliers against the government while giving out food packs. The outreach was allegedly breach of quarantine.

Section 9(D) of RA 11332 punishes non-cooperation of persons and entities that should report. 

Will the DOJ retract?

The DOJ's Office of the Prosecutor General on January 21 this year cleared Senator Pimentel of RA 11332 charges, saying that Section 9(D) covers health authorities only.

Police chief Debold Sinas is also facing an RA 11332 complaint over his "mañanita," but there has been no update yet on how Makati prosecutors had resolved it, or if they have resolved it. (READ: In PH pandemic: Due process for allies, warrantless arrests for the rest)

Guevarra was earlier asked if the DOJ would consider taking back their RA 111332 pronouncement to signal to the police to stop arresting under it.

"Please note that a large number of people apprehended by law enforcement officers during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic due to various quarantine violations were subsequently released and their cases dismissed by DOJ inquest prosecutors," said the justice secretary.

San Roque 21

Guevarra's quote was cited by the San Roque 21's petition for certiorari, pointing out that the urban poor residents may be being "discriminated against."

The petition for certiorari says they are "conscious of the general rule" that when a motion to quash is denied, the next step would be to just go to trial. 

The petition, however, cited a Supreme Court decision that says going to trial is not a sufficient remedy if "a more enlightened and substantial justice" is at stake. 

"The interest of a more enlightened and substantial justice requires that citizens, especially the poorest and the most marginalized, are guaranteed the protection of their fundamental rights under the Constitution," said the petition.

"Petitioners stand to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned for merely waiting for food aid along EDSA after enduring two weeks of unceasing hunger," they said.

President Rodrigo Duterte, in a speech in April 2020, ranted against the San Roque residents, generalized them as belonging to the Left, and then told the police that if people cause trouble during lockdown, they should "shoot them dead."

"Remember kayong mga Left: You are not the government…. Kaya huwag kayo mag-gawa ng kalokohan at mag-riot-riot diyan because I will order you detained at bibitawan ko kayo pagkatapos na wala na itong COVID," Duterte had said.

(Remember, you leftists: You are not the government. Do not go around causing trouble and riots because I will order you detained until this COVID [outbreak ends].) 

The San Roque 21 stressed in their petition: "Going outside one’s residence is not a crime, such that anyone who does so ─ especially for a necessity as basic as food ─ cannot and should not be subject to arrest. No law makes it so." – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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