The Supreme Court has lifted a freeze order issued by the Court of Appeals on the assets of former military comptroller retired Lt. Gen. Jacinto Ligot and his family, saying the indefinite timeframe of the order violated the family’s right to due process.
In a 24-page ruling dated March 6 and penned by Associate Justice Arturo Brion, the high court ordered the appellate court to transmit its records to branch 22 of the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) which is now hearing a civil forfeiture case against Ligot.
“We clarify that our conclusion applies only to the CA ruling and does not affect the proceedings or whatever resolution the RTC may have issued in the presently pending civil cases of forfeiture,” it said.
The high court found merit in the petition filed by Ligot, his wife Erlinda and children Paulo, Riza and Miguel who alleged the appeals court acted with grave abuse of discretion when it extended on Jan. 12, 2007 its freeze order on the their properties issued initially on Jan.4, 2006 for an indefinite period.
Ligot, who is accused of amassing at least P135.28-million in ill-gotten wealth, had asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision extending a freeze order on their properties issued on Sept. 20, 2005 “until after all the appropriate proceedings and/or investigation have been terminated,” saying it deprived them of their property without due process and was tantamount to punishing them before their guilt was proven.
Their appeals denied, the Ligots elevated the case to the Supreme Court in 2007, pointing out that the freeze order “ceased to be effective in view of the six-month extension limit on freeze orders provided under the Rule in Civil Forfeiture Cases” which took effect on Nov. 15, 2005.
In its decision, the high court found merit in the claim of the Ligots that the effectiveness of the freeze order on their properties ceased after Jan. 25, 2006 in accordance with the six-month rule.
The high court said the appellate court’s extension of the freeze order “borders on inflicting a punishment to the Ligots, in violation of their constitutionally protected right to be presumed innocent, because the unreasonable denial of their property comes before final conviction.”
The high court also noted that the freeze order had been in effect since 2005 while the government only filed a civil forfeiture case in 2011 and another forfeiture case in 2012.
The high court said the government did not even give an explanation why it took six years from the time the freeze order was granted before it was able to file a civil forfeiture case in court.
The extended freeze order indeed violated the Ligots’ right to due process, the high court ruled, and ordered the reversal of the appellate court decision.
The high court reminded the Court of Appeals that “the government’s anticorruption drive cannot be done at the expense of cherished fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution.”
“The end does not justify the means,” it said.