• Unintentional overhearing of phone conversation not necessarily wiretapping


    Persida Acosta

    Dear PAO,
    My husband and I are renting a dorm-type house and we are on the second floor. The owner has provided a telephone extension on our floor so that we can make and take calls from there, rather than having to go to the sala downstairs. The other day, I picked up the telephone extension on our floor to make a call to the office where I work. I did not know initially that someone else was using the telephone line. But it so happened that another tenant was using the phone then, and I unintentionally heard a part of his conversation with a lady on the other end of the line. I hung up the phone and waited until he was done.

    To my shock, he went to our floor and started yelling at me about why I was trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. He even threatened to sue me for wiretapping because I was using the telephone extension instead of the main telephone. Is this really possible? To be honest, I am not certain as to what they were talking about, and I do not even care what it was. Maybe it was about some sensitive matter, thus, he over-reacted. I just want to know if I will be liable for anything. It just does not seem fair to me because I did not intend to do any wrong on anyone. Please advise me on this matter.

    Dear Jan,
    One of the acts penalized under Republic Act (RA) 4200, or the Anti-Wiretapping Act, is the unauthorized tapping of private communication or spoken word. As specifically mentioned under the law:

    “Section 1. It shall be unlawful for any person, not being authorized by all the parties to any private communication or spoken word, to tap any wire or cable, or by using any other device or arrangement, to secretly overhear, intercept or record such communication or spoken word by using a device commonly known as a dictaphone or dictagraph or dictaphone or walkie-talkie or tape recorder, or however otherwise described: x x x

    “Section 2. Any person who willfully or knowingly does or who shall aid, permit or cause to be done any of the acts declared to be unlawful in the preceding section or who violates the provisions of the following section or of any order issued thereunder, or aids, permits or causes such violation shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment for not less than six months or more than six years and with the accessory penalty of perpetual absolute disqualification from public office if the offender be a public official at the time of the commission of the offense, and, if the offender is an alien he shall be subject to deportation proceedings.”

    In the situation that you have presented, there is no question that you were unwelcome in the telephone conversation, which your co-tenant was having, as you did not secure prior authorization to listen to whatever they were discussing about.

    Nonetheless, we do not think that you may be held liable for violation of the provisions of RA No. 4200. First of all, it does not appear that you “willfully or knowingly” eavesdropped on their conversation. As you have mentioned, you were not aware in the beginning that someone else was using the telephone line and you then unintentionally heard a part of their conversation when you picked up the telephone extension on your floor. Second, it cannot be concluded that you tapped any wire or cable, or used any other device that is intended to surreptitiously intercept the conversation they were having. As enunciated by our Supreme Court in the case of Gaanan vs. Intermediate Appellate Court and People of the Philippines (G.R. No. L-69809, October 16, 1986; ponente, former Associate Justice Hugo Gutierrez Jr.):

    “x x x An extension telephone cannot be placed in the same category as a dictaphone, dictagraph or the other devices enumerated in Section 1 of RA 4200 as the use thereof cannot be considered as ‘tapping’ the wire or cable of a telephone line. The telephone extension in this case was not installed for that purpose. It just happened to be there for ordinary office use. It is a rule in statutory construction that in order to determine the true intent of the legislature, the particular clauses and phrases of the statute should not be taken as detached and isolated expressions, but the whole and every part thereof must be considered in fixing the meaning of any of its parts. (see Commissioner of Customs v. Esso Estandard Eastern, Inc., 66 SCRA 113,120).

    Hence, the phrase “device or arrangement” in Section 1 of RA 4200, although not exclusive to that enumerated therein, should be construed to comprehend instruments of the same or similar nature, that is, instruments the use of which would be tantamount to tapping the main line of a telephone. It refers to instruments whose installation or presence cannot be presumed by the party or parties being overheard because, by their very nature, they are not of common usage and their purpose is precisely for tapping, intercepting or recording a telephone conversation. x x x”

    We hope that we were able to answer your queries. Please be reminded that this advice is based solely on the facts you have narrated and our appreciation of the same. Our opinion may vary when other facts are changed or elaborated.

    Editor’s note: Dear PAO is a daily column of the Public Attorney’s Office. Questions for Chief Acosta may be sent to dearpao@manilatimes.net.


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