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End does not justify the means: SC voids South Cotabato speed limit for conflicting with Land Transportation Code

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Saying the end does not justify the means, the Supreme Court (SC) has nullified a speed limit ordinance enacted by the Tupi, South Cotabato, council in conflict with the Land Transportation and Traffic Code and in violation of the publication requirement.

In a recent 19-page en banc decision, the SC denied the municipal government’s petition assailing the January 20, 2016 decision of the Polomolok Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 39 that declared Municipal Ordinance Number 688, series of 2014 “invalid and void ab initio.”

But, the SC deleted the RTC’s order for the municipal government to “immediately refund all the accrued-collected fines.”

It said Herminio Faustino, the lawyer who filed the petition for declaratory relief before the trial court, never represented himself to be acting in behalf of all other persons who were penalized under the void ordinance. Hence, only Faustino would be able to secure a refund of the P1,000 fine he paid under protest after he was flagged down on October 6, 2014.

The questioned ordinance imposed a speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour (kph) along the stretch of the National Highway from Crossing Polonuling to Crossing Acmonan.

The limit was halved to 40 kph from Crossing Acmonan to Crossing Cebuano, because of the high rates of accidents. This was where Faustino was flagged down for running at 70 kph. Two days later, he challenged the ordinance before the RTC.

The SC mulled over the following question: “Are we going to strike down this local government enactment due to its legal infirmities or uphold it as a successful measure of general welfare?”

While acknowledging that the ordinance reduced the number of accidents, the SC said it “cannot be blind to the clear procedural and substantial lapses taining its enactment and implementation.”

It cited the municipal government’s failure to first classify its public highways in accordance with the categorization provided under Section 35 of Republic Act (RA) Number 4136, or the Land Transportation and Traffice Code.

Also not met were the requirements to visibly mark the highways, certify to the Land Transportation Office (LTO) the names, locations and limits of “through streets,” and secure the LTO’s approval.

The SC stressed that under the hierarchy of legal rules, municipal ordinances are inferior and subordinate to the national laws enacted by Congress. Hence, the Tupi ordinance must be set aside.

Likewise, the failure to publish the ordinance as required by the Section 59 of the Local Government Code meant it “did not become effective, much less, enforceable.”

It said there was no evidence regarding the lack of a newspaper of general circulation within the entire province of South Cotabato.

In ordering the refund of Faustino’s fine, the SC said the operative fact doctrine—which sustains the effects of an act otherwise declared void by the courts—would not apply.

This was because none of the parties raised the doctrine before the trial court and the SC, and “it would not be fair to prejudice any of them on a point that neither has argued.”

The SC added that there was no reliance by the public in good faith, especially since there was opposition to the validity of the municipal ordinance. Besides, the collection of fines can still be undone, since no inequity or injustice would arise from it.

The decision was penned by Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier.

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