Although trial courts are enjoined to observe strict enforcement of the rules of evidence, in connection with evidence which may appear to be of doubtful relevancy, incompetency, or admissibility, we have held that:
‘[I]t is the safest policy to be liberal, not rejecting them on doubtful or technical grounds, but admitting them unless plainly irrelevant, immaterial or incompetent, for the reason that their rejection places them beyond the consideration of the court, if they are thereafter found relevant or competent; on the other hand, their admission, if they turn out later to be irrelevant or incompetent, can easily be remedied by completely discarding them or ignoring them.
The Republic of the Philippines (Republic), through the Philippine Commission on Good Governance (PCGG) instituted a Complaint for Reconveyance, Reversion, Accounting, Restitution and Damages against Fe and Ignacio Gimenez (Spouses Gimenez) before the Sandiganbayan. The Complaint seeks to recover ill-gotten wealth allegedly acquired by them as dummies, agents, or nominees of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos and Imelda Marcos. During trial, the Republic presented documentary evidence attesting to the positions held, business interests, income, and pertinent transactions of the Gimenez Spouses. The Republic several witnesses who testified on the bank accounts and businesses owned or controlled by them. Thereafter, the Republic then manifested that it was “no longer presenting further evidence.
Accordingly, the Sandiganbayan gave the Republic thirty (30) days to file its formal offer of evidence. The Republic moved for an extension of thirty (30) days to file its formal offer of evidence. This Motion was granted by the Sandiganbayan. Subsequently, the Republic moved for an additional fifteen (15) days within which to file its Formal Offer of Evidence which was likewise granted by the Sandiganbayan. Following this, no additional motion for extension was filed by the Republic.
Ignacio Gimenez, joined by his wife, Fe, then filed a Motion to Dismiss on Demurrer to Evidence, arguing that the Republic showed no right to relief as there was no evidence to support its cause of action.
The Sandiganbayan granted Spouses Gimenez’ Motion to Dismiss on the ground of Demurrer to Evidence, ratiocinating that the Republic failed to make a formal offer of evidence despite the extensions of time given to it. Due to Republic’s failure to file its Formal Offer of Evidence, the court excluded several of the exhibits it presented previously. According to the court, the reasons invoked by the Republic to justify its failure to timely file the formal offer of evidence fail to persuade. The missing exhibits mentioned by the Republic’s counsel appear to be the same missing documents since 2004, which was almost two (2) years ago. It had more than ample time to locate these documents for its purpose. Since they remain missing after the lapse of the period indicated or given by the court, there is no reason why the search for these documents should delay the filing of the formal offer of evidence. Consequently, the Sandiganbayan considered the Republic to have waived its right to file its Formal Offer of Evidence. Also, the court noted that the documentary evidence presented by the Republic consisted mostly of certified true copies. However, the persons who certified the documents as copies of the original were not presented. Hence, the evidence lacked probative value.
Aggrieved, the Republic filed the present petition for review on certiorari before the Supreme Court, assailing, among others, the Sandiganbayan’s resolution granting the spouses’ Motion to Dismiss on the ground of Demurrer to Evidence.
Was the Motion to Dismiss on the ground of Demurrer to Evidence correct or proper?
No. The grant of such Motion to Dismison on the ground of Demurrer to Evidence was not proper because the Sandiganbayan excluded the exhibits previously presented by the Republic, which should all have been considered in determining the propriety of the demurrer to evidence, pursuant to Rule 33 of the Rules of Court and prevailing jurisprudence.
Here, the Supreme Court, through Justice Leonen, ruled that the Sandiganbayan cannot just arbitrarily disregard evidence especially when resolving a motion to dismiss on the ground of demurrer to evidence, which tests the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s evidence. The Sandiganbayan should have considered Atienza v. Board of Medicine, et al. where the Supreme Court held that it is better to admit and consider evidence for determination of its probative value than to outright reject it based on very rigid and technical grounds.
The Court ruled, thus:
“Although trial courts are enjoined to observe strict enforcement of the rules of evidence, in connection with evidence which may appear to be of doubtful relevancy, incompetency, or admissibility, we have held that:
‘[I]t is the safest policy to be liberal, not rejecting them on doubtful or technical grounds, but admitting them unless plainly irrelevant, immaterial or incompetent, for the reason that their rejection places them beyond the consideration of the court, if they are thereafter found relevant or competent; on the other hand, their admission, if they turn out later to be irrelevant or incompetent, can easily be remedied by completely discarding them or ignoring them.’
A liberal application of the Rules is in line with the state’s policy to recover ill-gotten wealth.
In case of doubt, courts should proceed with caution in granting a motion to dismiss based on demurrer to evidence. An order granting demurrer to evidence is a judgment on the merits. This is because while a demurrer ‘is an aid or instrument for the expeditious termination of an action,’ it specifically pertains to the merits of the case.
In Cabreza, Jr., et al. v. Cabreza, this court defined a judgment rendered on the merits:
‘A judgment may be considered as one rendered on the merits when it determines the rights and liabilities of the parties based on the disclosed facts, irrespective of formal, technical or dilatory objections; or when the judgment is rendered after a determination of which party is right, as distinguished from a judgment rendered upon some preliminary or formal or merely technical point. (Citations omitted)
To reiterate, [d]emurrer to evidence authorizes a judgment on the merits of the case without the defendant having to submit evidence on his [or her] part, as he [or she] would ordinarily have to do, if plaintiff’s evidence shows that he [or she] is not entitled to the relief sought. The order of dismissal must be clearly supported by facts and law since an order granting demurrer is a judgment on the merits.
To erroneously grant a dismissal simply based on the delay to formally offer documentary evidence essentially deprives one party of due process.
Definition of “demurrer to evidence”
In Oropesa v. Oropesa where this court affirmed the dismissal of the case on demurrer to evidence due to petitioner’s non-submission of the Formal Offer of Evidence, demurrer to evidence was defined as. . . “an objection by one of the parties in an action, to the effect that the evidence which his adversary produced is insufficient in point of law, whether true or not, to make out a case or sustain the issue.”
We have also held that a demurrer to evidence “authorizes a judgment on the merits of the case without the defendant having to submit evidence on his part, as he would ordinarily have to do, if plaintiff’s evidence shows that he is not entitled to the relief sought.”
Guidelines in resolving a demurrer to evidence
This court has laid down the guidelines in resolving a demurrer to evidence:
“A demurrer to evidence may be issued when, upon the facts and the law, the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. Where the plaintiff’s evidence together with such inferences and conclusions as may reasonably be drawn therefrom does not warrant recovery against the defendant, a demurrer to evidence should be sustained. A demurrer to evidence is likewise sustainable when, admitting every proven fact favorable to the plaintiff and indulging in his favor all conclusions fairly and reasonably inferable therefrom, the plaintiff has failed to make out one or more of the material elements of his case, or when there is no evidence to support an allegation necessary to his claim. It should be sustained where the plaintiff’s evidence is prima facie insufficient for a recovery”.
When a criminal case based on demurrer to evidence is dismissed, the dismissal is equivalent to an acquittal.
As a rule, once the court grants the demurrer, the grant amounts to an acquittal; any further prosecution of the accused would violate the constitutional proscription on double jeopardy. Hence, the Republic may only assail an acquittal through a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court.
Accordingly, a review of a dismissal order of the Sandiganbayan granting an accused’s demurrer to evidence may be done via the special civil action of certiorari under Rule 65, based on the narrow ground of grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.
In this case, a civil forfeiture under Republic Act No. 1379, petitioner correctly filed a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court because the action under RA 1379, as in this case, is one of civil, NOT criminal, in nature.