Friday, April 19, 2024

RTC judge dismissed after SC finds corrupt acts via broken laptop

The Supreme Court (SC) has imposed the penalty of dismissal from service on a judge whose corrupt practices were discovered when a defective laptop he turned over to another judge was opened for repair.

The High Court found Edralin C. Reyes, presiding judge of Branch 43 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Roxas City, Oriental Mindoro guilty of Gross Misconduct and ordered his dismissal from service for directly soliciting bribes from lawyers, litigants, and even local elective officials in exchange for favorable actions.

The SC also ordered the forfeiture of his retirement and other benefits, except accrued leave credits, and his perpetual disqualification from re-employment in any branch or agency of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations.

The court likewise ordered Reyes to pay a fine of P17,500 for Simple Misconduct, for his negligence in supervising his court staff and ensuring proper and safe record- and evidence-keeping system in his court, resulting in missing firearms, exhibits, and pieces of evidence that were in court custody.

In August 2018, the SC assigned a laptop to Reyes, then acting presiding judge of Branch 39, RTC of Roxas City. The subject laptop was transferred to judge Josephine C. Carranzo upon her appointment to Branch 39.

In December 2019, Carranzo returned the laptop to the SC’s Management Information Systems Office (MISO) for repair or replacement.

As standard procedure, the MISO examined the laptop and found a backup of iPhone messages, some of which showed that Reyes was engaged in corrupt practice.

The MISO reported the same to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), which hired a forensic expert to extract data from the laptop, resulting in the recovery of SMS/iMessage conversations, contact information, photos, videos, and iPhone notes.

The OCA Investigating Team found that Reyes was the user of the laptop and the owners of an iPhone 6S Plus from which the iMessages came.

Reyes used the said phone to communicate and ask for bribes from several lawyers and private individuals, in exchange for favorable action on cases pending before him.

It became apparent that Reyes frequently conversed with lawyers Eduardo M. Magsino, Marlo E. Masangkay, Lysander Lascano Fetizanan, and mayor Joselito Malabanan.

Specifically, Reyes: (1) borrowed money and asked for “pabaon” or pocket money from Magsino whenever Reyes attended seminars and trainings; (2) asked Masangkay to be his “dummy” in a transaction involving a 900-square-meter lot that Reyes owns; and (3) received money, a car, and guns from private practitioners in exchange for favorable action.

As a result, three judicial audit teams were organized to investigate Branches 39, 41, and 43 of the Oriental Mindoro RTC.

The audit confirmed that Reyes demanded and asked for bribes in exchange for orders or resolutions granting bail or its reduction, decisions of acquittal, orders granting motion to travel abroad, and orders allowing plea to a lesser offense.

The audit likewise revealed that the firearms in nine cases decided by Reyes involving violations of Republic Act 10591, or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunitions Act, were not turned over to the Philippine National Police.

The judicial audit teams surmised that Reyes and the lawyers he frequently conversed with may have kept the missing firearms after the cases were dismissed.

In a Memorandum to the Judicial Integrity Board (JIB), the OCA endorsed to the JIB the judicial audit teams’ report and the compliance of Globe Telecom with the SC’s resolution requiring the telecom company to provide pertinent information on the ownership of the mobile phone numbers recovered from the subject laptop.

Globe confirmed that the mobile phone numbers retrieved from the laptop belong to Reyes, Magsino, Masangkay, and Fetizanan, and Malabanan. The JIB recommended that Reyes be directed to comment on the OCA Memorandum.

In his comment, Reyes argued that the retrieval of his private mobile phone data from the laptop was “a brazen violation of his constitutional right to privacy of correspondence.”

He alleged that the messages recovered from his mobile phone were fake, altered, tampered, and unreliable because Carranzo, who allegedly had an axe to grind against him, was in possession of the phone before it was turned over to the MISO.

Reyes also asserted that the messages recovered from his laptop cannot be used because they were obtained in his absence and without his permission.

The SC, in determining Reyes’ administrative liability, emphasized that a government-issued computer, even if privately controlled, is subject to regulation and monitoring by the government employer.

It ruled that the SMS/iMessage exchanges and the findings of the audit team were not excludable as there was no violation of Reyes’ right to privacy.

For one, Reyes had no expectation of privacy for electronic communications stored in the subject laptop. The court stressed that for judges and court employees, laptops and computers are provided to facilitate the courts’ function of adjudicating cases, and are not meant for private purposes.

In Reyes’ case, the SMS/iMessage correspondence were stored in the subject laptop and not in his private computer. Neither did it appear that the laptop was forcibly taken from him, the court said.

“These circumstances convince this Court that Judge Reyes cannot successfully claim that the State unduly intruded into a personal matter,” said the court.

The SC also held that since there is no violation of Reyes’ right to privacy, the information obtained through the judicial audit cannot be considered fruit of the poisonous tree.

“Further, even if the Court considered the MISO and OCA’s retrieval of the iPhone messages as violation of Judge Reyes’s right to privacy, this Court finds that the information obtained by the judicial audit team should be treated as an exception, as it is an inevitable discovery,” the High Tribunal said.

“Indeed, an administrative investigation would have been conducted, and the judicial audit team would have found the incriminating information even without the SMS/iMessage exchanges from the laptop… Thus, in the natural course of events, the evidence and information contained in the judicial audit team report would have reached this Court.”

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