My wife and I have been married for almost 30 years. Although we lived harmoniously for the longest time, I always have a suspicion that she had an affair earlier in our marriage. I was able to confirm my suspicion when I cleaned out her closet and discovered several hidden letters between her and her lover. I confronted her about this and instead of admitting her extramarital affairs we had a big fight because she disapproved of my going through her belongings and letters. She threatened that she will file a case against me for reading her private letters. Because of this, I want to seek legal advice if my wife can indeed press criminal charges against me for what I have done. Can I be imprisoned for reading someone else’s letters? Thank you in advance for your advice.
The act of reading letters to discover secrets and to reveal them is a punishable crime under our laws. The Revised Penal Code (RPC) of the Philippines provides that:
“Art. 290. Discovering secrets through seizure of correspondence.—The penalty of prision correccional in its minimum and medium periods and a fine not exceeding P500 shall be imposed upon any private individual who in order to discover the secrets of another, shall seize his papers or letters and reveal the contents thereof.
If the offender shall not reveal such secrets, the penalty shall be arresto mayor and a fine not exceeding P500.
The provision shall not be applicable to parents, guardians, or persons entrusted with the custody of minors with respect to the papers or letters of the children or minors placed under their care or study, nor to spouses with respect to the papers or letters of either of them.” (Emphasis supplied)
In order to qualify as a crime under the above cited provision, the reading of a letter must be done in order to discover a secret which implies that the content of the letter read must be confidential in nature. Thus, the reading of open letters such as postcards is not punishable under this provision because of the absence of confidentiality or secrecy of such letters (Leonor D. Boado, Notes and Cases on the Revised Penal Code, 2008 Edition).
Note that while the law penalizes the said act of reading private letters to discover secrets, a higher penalty is imposed when the discovered secrets from a confidential letter is revealed.
It is also important to note that the aforementioned law exempts certain individuals from criminal liability based on their relationship with the owner of the letter. As provided by law, parents, guardians and spouses can seize and discover the secrets in the papers and letters of their children, ward, and spouses, respectively, without criminal liability.
Because of this, while you may have discovered the secrets of your wife by seizing and reading her letters, you are still exempt from criminal liability because of your relationship with her as a spouse. Thus, your wife has no legal basis to file a criminal case against you for reading her letters.
Again, we find it necessary to mention that this opinion is solely based on the facts you have narrated and our appreciation of the same. The opinion may vary when the facts are changed or elaborated.
We hope that we were able to enlighten you on the matter.
Editor’s note: Dear PAO is a daily column of the Public Attorney’s Office. Questions for Chief Acosta may be sent to email@example.com