The Supreme Court has sustained the 2017 Court of Appeals decision upholding the conviction of a Regional Trial Court of a sing-along videoke bar owner who recruited two minors and peddled them for prostitution in 2014.
In a decision penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Lopez that was made public last January 4, 2022, the SC affirmed the conviction of Celia Bucaling Dela Cruz, who was sentenced to two life imprisonments for two counts of violations of qualified trafficking in persons under Section 6 of Republic Act No. 9208, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003.
The high court also upheld the P2 million penalty imposed on Dela Cruz for each count, and the P500,000 moral damages and P100,000 exemplary damages to be paid to each of the two minor victims.
The names of the victims, the place where the crimes were committed, and the branch of the RTC which convicted Dela Cruz were redacted in the decision.
During the trial of the two cases, the SC noted that the prosecution was able to prove that Dela Cruz recruited the two minors, peddled them to two police officers who posed as bar customers because of reports of prostitution in the establishment, and received P1,000 in payment for the sex services of each of the two minors.
The RTC said the acts of qualified trafficking committed by Dela Cruz were established by the testimonies of the minor victims as well as the police officers who posed as customers.
In upholding the trial court decision with modification on the award of damages, the appellate court ruled that Dela Cruz performed all the elements in the commission of the crime when she peddled the minor victims and offered sex services in exchange for money.
Dela Cruz elevated her cases to the SC and pleaded for an acquittal. But the SC denied her petition.
Punishable under RA 9208, are acts of “recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring, or receipt of persons with or without the victim’s consent or knowledge, within or across national borders” and the means used which include “threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of position, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the person, or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another.”
The law also states that the purpose of trafficking is “exploitation which includes exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, servitude or the removal or sale of organs.”
“Here, both the victims testified that as part of their work, they were engaged by accused-appellant (Dela Cruz) to render VIP service to male customers which involved having sexual intercourse with them in exchange for money,” the SC said.
“It was accused-appellant who transacts with the customers and upon payment of the service fee, they are instructed to go to the VIP room located at the 2nd floor of the resto bar. When a customer wants VIP service, there is already an understanding that sexual intercourse will happen between them and the customer,” it added.
The SC stressed that there is no requirement that there be an actual sexual intercourse with the victim to sustain a finding of trafficking.
“The crime is considered consummated even if no sexual intercourse had taken place since the mere transaction consummates the crime. It is sufficient that the accused has lured, enticed, or engaged its victims or transported them for the established purpose of exploitation, which includes prostitution,” the tribunal said.
“The gravamen of the crime of trafficking is ‘the act of recruiting or using, with or without consent, a fellow human being for sexual exploitation,” it added.
The SC held that while no sexual contact took place between the minor victims and the police officers, the same would not affect the accused-appellant’s criminal liability.
“What consummates the crime of trafficking is the fact that accused-appellant transacted with the police officers and peddled private complainants for sex in exchange for money,” the high court emphasized.
“The crime is also qualified in view of the established fact that the persons being trafficked are children. Taken collectively, all the foregoing supports the conclusion that the guilt of accused-appellant for two counts of Qualified Trafficking in Persons had been proven beyond reasonable doubt,” it said.