JUSTICE Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said Representative Arnulfo Teves Jr., suspected mastermind in the murder of Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo, is already considered a “fugitive from justice” although no warrant of arrest has yet been issued against the congressman.

Mere suspicion that a person committed a crime is enough to qualify Teves as a fugitive, said Remulla. “When one is suspected of having committed a crime, he is already considered a fugitive. He just didn’t show up... The actions would speak louder than words, he just didn’t show up,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) chief said in an ABS-CBN interview Thursday, March 30, 2923.

He could be talking in the non-legal sense -- in the understanding of non-lawyers to whom flight or not facing the charges may indicate guilt -- but the justice secretary was answering a legal point raised by Teves’s lawyer.

Rules and regulations on paper don’t support Remulla’s view. But he seemed to be addressing public opinion, not a court of law.

MALACAÑANG LIST OF FUGITIVES. A memorandum circular #201 of August 23, 1968, signed by then president Ferdinand E. Marcos, lists seven persons who are considered fugitives from justice.

Top on the list are persons charged with a crime(s) in court who remain at large. Teves is charged with a crime but he may not be considered at large because no warrant has yet been issued for his arrest.

Teves hasn’t jumped bail; he's not an escapee from a penal or correctional institution or local jail; he wasn’t caught actually committing a crime; or he’s not a pirate and bandit “as confirmed by intelligence reports.”

But under #6 in the list, he may be regarded as a “person involved in any killing whose criminal responsibility is confirmed by any law enforcement authority.”

The memo-circular though was intended mainly to regulate the payment of reward for the arrest or capture of wanted criminals/police characters and confiscation of illegal firearms. And could it prevail against the standing Philippine National Police (PNP) rules and regulations on wanted persons, which requires a warrant of arrest?

NOT A POLICE WANTED PERSON. The PNP revised guidelines on the arrest and accounting of wanted persons, numbered #2022-028 and released March 11, 2022.

Teves is not yet considered a “wanted person” who’s defined as “a person who is fugitive from justice, either convicted or accused of a crime and hiding in order to avoid arrest from law enforcement units.”

An earlier letter of instruction, from the PNP chief -- LOI03/11 of November 22, 2011 -- defines wanted persons thus: “persons against whom warrant of arrest has been issued by competent authority.” It’s most likely that Teves is not yet on the list of WPs (wanted persons) and MWPs (most wanted persons) that the PNP maintains under the said memo circular.

WHY THERE’S NO WARRANT YET. Multiple murder complaints have been filed for the killing of Governor Degamo and eight others in his residence at Pamplona, Negros Oriental and for other killings in that province in 2019. Besides that, Teves has been publicly identified by Remullas as one of the masterminds.

But the legal process is still in the preliminary investigation phase. The case still has to reach the court, which is the “competent authority” to issue a warrant.

Remulla lays blame for the delay at the justice system’s door. “Due process. Authorities must respect it.”

ALA PING LACSON DEFENSE. Former senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson -- who fled on January 5, 2010, before a Manila regional trial court issued on February 5 of the same year a warrant for his arrest -- admitted he was a fugitive at the time.

But he did so only after he returned to the country following the Court of Appeals order of February 3, 2011, nullifying the arrest warrant, and he admitted with a qualifier, “a fugitive of injustice for 12 months,” he said he was.

Teves might be thinking of doing what Lacson did during his fugitive months: still carrying on, through his lawyers, his legal defense although he didn’t personally submit himself to the courts he was seeking redress from.