SC limits detention period of Senate witnesses held in contempt

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 14 2018 07:29 PM

MANILA - The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday ruled that the Senate order for imprisonment of uncooperative witnesses under its contempt power should last only until the termination of a legislative inquiry.

“The period of detention under the Senate’s inherent power of contempt is not indefinite," the SC said in a decision penned by Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo.

"The Court finds that the period of imprisonment under the inherent power of contempt by the Senate during inquiries in aid of legislation should only last until the termination of the legislative inquiry under which the said power is invoked."

The high court settled this legal issue despite its dismissal of the petition filed by Aegis Jvris fraternity member Arvin Balag, who went to the high court to question his imprisonment by the Senate.

Balag’s petition was declared “moot and academic” in light of his release on December 12, 2017 and the termination of the Senate inquiry into the alleged hazing death of Aegis Jvris and University of Santo Tomas freshman law student Horacio “Atio” Castillo III. 

Balag, among those tagged in the incident, was cited in contempt and ordered detained by the Senate Committees on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, Justice and Human Rights, and Constitutional Amendments for being evasive and refusing to answer the senators’ questions. 

“The Court finds that there is a genuine necessity to place a limitation on the period of imprisonment that may be imposed by the Senate pursuant to its inherent power of contempt during inquiries in aid of legislation," the court said. 

It said Section 21, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution states that Congress, in the conduct of hearings in aid of legislation, "must respect the rights of persons appearing in or affected therein."

“The said witness may be detained for a day, a month, a year, or even for a lifetime depending on the desire of the perpetual Senate. Certainly, in that case, the rights of persons appearing before or affected by the legislative inquiry are in jeopardy,” the SC said, as it explained its decision to proceed with the issue on Senate orders for detention or imprisonment despite the petition’s dismissal.

The high court stressed that it recognizes the Senate’s inherent power of contempt, but pointed out that the constitutional right to liberty cannot be respected when a witness is detained for an indefinite period of time without due process of law.

“[I]ndefinite imprisonment of witnesses as long as there is no specific period of detention… is certainly not contemplated and envisioned by the Constitution,” it added. 

The SC further explained that Congress’ contempt power may be used only to secure information from an uncooperative witness and does not extend to “the infliction of punishment."

"It is a means to an end and not the end itself,” the high court ruling read.

“Thus, the Court must strike a balance between the interest of the Senate and the rights of persons cited in contempt during legislative inquiries. The balancing of interests requires that the Court take a conscious and detailed consideration of the interplay of interests observable in a given situation or type of situation," it said.

Further, the high court ruled that the legislative inquiry of the Senate terminates on two instances: first, upon the approval or disapproval of the Committee Report; and second, the legislative inquiry of the Senate also terminates upon the expiration of one [current] Congress. 

“In addition, if the Congress decides to extend the period of imprisonment for the contempt committed by a witness beyond the duration of the legislative inquiry, then it may file a criminal case under the existing statute or enact a new law to increase the definite period of imprisonment," it said.