Replevin: Recovery of personal property.

Action for recovery of personal property:

Facts for an action for replevin:

A corporation was engaged in the business of providing public transportation.  On December 13, 1990, one of its buses, while traveling north and approaching the Alabang northbound exit lane, swerved and crashed into the radio room of respondent Philippine National Construction Company (PNCC).

The incident was initially investigated by respondent PNCC’s toll way patrol, Sofronio Salvanera, and respondent Pedro Balubal (Balubal), then head of traffic control and security department of the South Luzon tollway. The bus was thereafter turned over to the Alabang Traffic Bureau for it to conduct its own investigation of the incident. Because of lack of adequate space, the bus was, on request of traffic investigator Pat. Cesar Lopera (Lopera), towed by the PNCC patrol to its compound where it was stored.

Subsequently, petitioner made several requests for PNCC to release the bus, but respondent Balubal denied the same, despite petitioner’s undertaking to repair the damaged radio room.  Respondent Balubal instead demanded the sum of P40,000.00, or a collateral with the same value, representing respondent PNCC’s estimate of the cost of reconstruction of the damaged radio room.  By petitioner’s estimate, however, the damage amounted to P10,000.00 only. Petitioner therefore filed a complaint for recovery of personal property (replevin) with damages against respondents PNCC and Balubal with the Regional Trial Court, which however dismissed the complaint.

Constitution of Philippines about right to property:

The Constitution grants the right against unreasonable seizures. Thus, Section 2, Article III provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

The seizure and impounding of petitioner’s bus, on Lopera’s request, were unquestionably violative of “the right to be let alone” by the authorities as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Decision of the Supreme Court allowing replevin:

This Court’s statement in Victory Liner [A.M. No. MTJ-00-1321, March 10, 2004, 425 SCRA 79.] on the lack of a “clear-cut policy” refers to the practice, rightly or wrongly, of trial court judges of issuing orders for the impounding of vehicles involved in accidents.  It has no application to the instant case which involves the seizure and distraint implemented by respondents upon a verbal order by Lopera without the benefit or color of legality afforded by a court process, writ or order.

That a year after the incident the driver of the bus was criminally charged for reckless imprudence resulting to damage to property in which the bus could possibly be held as evidence does not affect the outcome of this case.  As explained in Bagalihog v. Fernandez (G.R. No. 96356, June 27, 1991, 198 SCRA 614.):

It is true that property held as evidence in a criminal case cannot be replevied.  But the rule applies only where the property is lawfully held, that is, seized in accordance with the rule against warrantless searches and seizures or its accepted exceptions.  Property subject of litigation is not by that fact alone in custodia legis.  As the Court said in Tamisin v. Odejar, [108 Phil. 560 (1960)] “A thing is in custodia legis when it is shown that it has been and is subjected to the official custody of a judicial executive officer in pursuance of his execution of a legal writ.”  Only when property is lawfully taken by virtue of legal process is it considered in the custody of the law, and not otherwise.   (Emphasis and underscoring supplied; italics in the original; citations omitted)

Article 1962 of the Civil Code provides:

Art. 1962. A deposit is constituted from the moment a person receives a thing belonging to another, with the obligation of safely keeping it and of returning the same.  If the safekeeping of the thing delivered is not the principal purpose of the contract, there is not deposit but some other contract.

The police authorities,  through  Lopera,  having  turned  over the bus to respondents for safekeeping, a contract of deposit (term bailment is used in India) was perfected between them and respondents.

Petitioner’s prayer for recovery of possession of the bus is, in light of the foregoing discussion, thus in order.

[Source: SUPERLINES TRANSPORTATION  COMPANY, INC.,v. PHILIPPINE   NATIONAL CONSTRUCTION COMPANY and PEDRO BALUBAL.(Supreme Court of Philippines)]

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