SC Acquits Notary from Falsification Charges But Directs Filing of Administrative Case Against Him

July 24, 2019

The Supreme Court (SC) has acquitted a notary public of the crime of falsification of a public document but directed the Office of the Bar Confidant to file the appropriate administrative action against him.

In a 17-page decision promulgated on April 8, 2019, the SC Third Division through Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen granted the petition of Atty. Bernardo Constantino to reverse and set aside the Court of Appeals (CA) rulings dated January 19, 2016 and June 9, 2016, which affirmed Atty. Constantino’s 2013 conviction by the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Laoag City, Branch 14. 

Both the RTC and CA found that Atty. Constantino had notarized Severino Cabrales’ will prior to it being signed by a witness whose name was printed on the will, Dr. Eliezer John Asuncion. The latter did not appear before Atty. Constantino who also did not cross out the name of Dr. Asuncion before notarizing it. Dr. Asuncion only signed the will after it had already been notarized.

The SC cited Article 171(2) of the Revised Penal Code, enumerating the elements that the prosecution must prove to be held criminally liable for the crime of falsification of public documents: (1) that the offender is a public officer, employee, or notary public, (2) that he takes advantage of his official position, (3) that he falsifies a document by causing it to appear that persons have participated in any act or proceeding, and (4) that such person/s did not in fact so participate in the proceeding.

The SC held that both the defense and prosecution admit that Atty. Constantino is a notary public, satisfying the first element. On the second element, the SC pointed out that “[it] is presumed when the alleged falsity committed by the notary public pertains to the notarization, since only notaries public have the duty and authority to notarize documents.” On the third and fourth element, the SC underscored that the RTC and CA disregarded one crucial detail from their finding of facts: Dr. Asuncion signed the Joint Acknowledgment after it had been notarized by Atty. Constantino. It also found that Dr. Asuncion signed the document at the urging of Rene Ferrer, Jr., son-in-law of Cabrales’ daughter, and that Atty. Constantino seemed unaware that Dr. Asuncion later signed the document. Meanwhile, Dr. Asuncion admitted that his signature was genuine and that he was aware of what he was signing.

In acquitting Atty. Constantino, the SC held that “[s]ince Dr. Asuncion did not sign the Joint Acknowledgment before it was notarized, he cannot be considered as having attested and subscribed to its due execution at the time of its notarization. Thus, when Atty. Constantino certified that the persons who attested and subscribed to the document were present before him, there could have been no falsity.” The SC found that it was not Atty. Constantino who made it appear that Dr. Asuncion participated in the execution of the Joint Acknowledgment, but Ferrer and Dr. Asuncion himself.

The SC, however, ruled that “while [Atty. Constatino]’s acts may be inadequate to find him criminally liable, he may still be liable for administrative sanctions.” It noted that the failure of Atty. Constantino to cross out Dr. Asuncion’s name when he notarized the Joint Acknowledgement has allowed Dr. Asuncion to still sign the document despite not having participated in its due execution. The SC pointed out that although the incidents of this case occurred in 2001 and the applicable Notarial Law then did contain a provision on false and incomplete certificates, the Court has already cautioned notaries public from notarizing incomplete documents even before the applicability of the 2004 Rules on Notarial Practice.

(G.R. No. 225696, Atty. Constantino v. People, April 8, 2019)