“May”

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A single word can mean the life and death to an accused. It is for this reason that legislation takes much time because the makers of the law have to make sure that the words they use are accurate to avoid confusion in the interpretation of the law. No matter how careful the lawmakers choose their words however, there are still instances when even a single word can bring litigants all the way to the Supreme Court to seek clarification as to its meaning. Many of these are simple words that most of us take for granted because we use them often so much so that we tend to believe that their meaning are accepted and understood by all. The term “may” has been interpreted in many ways even if we think that its meaning is already settled. It took a Supreme Court case to settle the legal meaning of this three letter word.

Gustilo vs. CA

This case was decided in 1995 and the issue is the rule on preliminary investigation under the 1985 Rules of Criminal Procedure. Although the rule in question is an old one, the ruling in the case can still be a guide. Esam Gadi was arrested at the Manila International Airport in 1993 for possession of marijuana. His bail was reduced after filing a motion and posted his bond. He then filed a motion for reinvestigation citing the seriousness of the allegations against him as ground. He claims that although his motion was filed beyond five days from learning of the filing of the information against him, the said reglementary period was not mandatory and the court can still grant his motion since the rule uses the term “may”: “If the case has been filed in court without a preliminary investigation having been conducted, the accused may within five (5) days from the time he learns of the filing of the information, ask for a preliminary investigation with the same right to adduce evidence in his favor in the manner prescribed in this Rule.” (G.R. No. 116623 March 23, 1995). The motion was subsequently denied by the trial court and Gadi questioned said denial before the Court of Appeals which overturned the ruling of the RTC. The CA reasoned “that the five-day period for asking reinvestigation was only permissive, considering the use of the word “may.”

The CA Erred

The CA erred in its decision that the use of the word “may” connotes that the 5-day reglementary period is only permissive and that the court may ignore it and grant the motion for reinvestigation even after 5 days from the time the accused learned of the filing of a case against him. Said the Court: “Clearly, Section 7 of Rule 112 of the present Rules gives the accused the right to ask for a preliminary investigation; but it does not give him the right to do so after the lapse of the five-day period.” True, the SC ruled in another case (Tan vs. SEC) that the word “may” is permissive, but the decision in that case is not applicable to this one. The Court went on to say that: “The “opportunity” or “possibility” engendered by the use of the term “may” in this rule relates only to the option of filing a motion for preliminary investigation; it does not refer to the filing of the motion after the expiration of the five-day period. This rule grants the accused a right or faculty and not an obligation. In the sense that he is not obliged to exercise this right, this rule is permissive only; in the sense that he may exercise this right only within the five-day period, the rule is mandatory.” The word “may” in the Rules on Criminal procedure is permissive on the part of the accused but not on the part of the court. Although the accused might have incurred additional expenses in the bringing the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, at least we now have a definitive ruling on the meaning of this three-letter word.

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