IF ONLY as a symbolic gesture to start the renewal and reform that the new administration III of President Benigno C. Aquino III is ushering in, his allies in Congress should think of immediately conduct a review of the criminal laws in the country to rid our penal system of outmoded provisions and precepts. Lack of space for this piece prevents an exhaustive exposition, and even just an enumeration, of those many archaic features of our laws; but a hop, skip and jump over the Revised Penal Code (RPC) is sufficient to prove my thesis.

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Our RPC dates back to 1886. By Royal Decree dated December 17, the Penal Code then in force in the Spanish Peninsula was ordered published and made effective in the Philippine Islands. It was revised, as per Administrative Order No. 94 of the Department of Justice, enacted into law by the Philippine Legislature on December 8, 1930 and took effect January 1, 1932.

Because it was a mere revision of the old, the new law was known only as the Revised Penal Code (RPC). Despite subsequent amendments and modifications, it has retained its name precisely because it remains to be just a revision, and not an overhaul of a very old law. The RPC, up to now, continues to contain a number of provisions which many would consider "a quaint and ancient volume of forgotten lore."

Let us take a hop into the book of penalties. Immediately we met the "punishment" known as destierro. A person sentenced to destierro is "not permitted to enter the place or places designated in the sentence, or within the radius therein specified, which shall not be more than 250 and not less than 25 kilometers from the place designated." (Art. 86, RPC)

This is the penalty imposed by Article 247 on a legally married person who, having surprised his spouse in the act of committing sexual intercourse with another person, shall kill any of them or both of them in the act or immediately thereafter, or shall inflict upon them any serious physical injury. It is also imposed under the same circumstances, on parents with respect to their daughters under eighteen years of age, and on their seducers, while the daughters are living with their parents.

It is also imposed when a person who has been convicted of making threats against another fails to give the bail imposed by the judge to guarantee his not molesting the person threatened.

Similarly, destierro is meted out against a concubine of a husband who keeps her as a mistress in the conjugal dwelling, or who under scandalous circumstances have sexual intercourse with her or cohabits with her in any other place. Finally, it is imposed when after the application of the complicated rules of determining the applicable penalty of a crime, the resulting penalty consists merely in the accused being kept away.

Let us set aside the obviously "sexist" text of the statute in favor the man in Article 247. In fairness, it has been ruled early on that, despite the use of the word "his" in the first instance mentioned above, a wife who similarly surprises her husband can also, with some impunity of sorts, kill or injure him.

What needs rethinking is the idea that keeping the felon away from a certain place for 25 to 250 kilometers is sufficient to prevent him from committing further mischief. In the days of horse and carriage, that may be so. But, in this age where distance is almost irrelevant due to modern means of transportation and communication, why consider not being able to be within 25 to 250 kilometers of a certain place a penalty?

From the book of penalties, let us skip to the book of crimes. Articles 260 and 261 deal with duels. A "duel" as contemplated in these articles is not the common street challenge and agreement to a fight. Thus, one who, with ill-feeling and hatred in his heart, shouted to his victim, "Come down, let us measure your prowess, we shall see whose intestine will come out. You are a coward if you do not come down," was not convicted of challenging to a due, but only to light threats.

The "duel" referred to, according to the two-volume commentaries of Luis B. Reyes which received the Centenary Book Award granted by the Supreme Court in 2001, is a formal or regular combat previously concerted between two parties in the presence of two or more seconds of lawful age on each side, who make the selection of arms and fix all the other conditions of the fight." Dueling, clearly belongs to a bygone era. It has no place in any modern code of penal laws.

Lastly, does anybody know of anyone who has taken part in any "charivari"? Chariveri is one of four crimes penalized in Article 155. The word is from the latin "caribaria" meaning headache. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as a "noisy mock serenade to newlyweds". Reyes extends it to less conjugal situations and says it "includes a medley of discordant voices, a mock serenade of discordant noises made on kettles, tins, horns, etc. designed to annoy and insult."

Certainly, with great haste Congress ought to expunge "chariveri" from the law. Otherwise, the courts may be tempted to expand its coverage to their political caucuses, too.

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