The concept of aggravating circumstances in criminal law holds great significance. These circumstances have the power to elevate the severity of a crime and influence the sentencing process. Among the various aggravating factors recognized by the legal system, abuse of superior strength and means employed to weaken defense are amongst them.
In this post, we will delve into these aggravating circumstances, understand their implications, and explore how courts have interpreted them in different cases.
According to Article 14, paragraph 15 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, it is stipulated that aggravating circumstances pertain to instances wherein the offender deliberately employs certain factors to effectively carry out the criminal act that was originally intended.
The aforementioned aggravating circumstances encompass, but are not limited to, the following: (1) the abuse of superior strength, and (2) the employment of means to weaken the defense.
In the initial instance, the transgressor is leveraging various advantages, including but not limited to their inherent physical prowess, physical superiority, numerical dominance, and similar attributes, in order to perpetrate the unlawful act. In the interim, the latter refers to any methods or strategies employed by the perpetrator to surprise or diminish the victim’s ability to resist said criminal act.
Abuse of superior strength is present whenever there is a notorious inequality of forces between the victim and the aggressor/s that is plainly and obviously advantageous to the aggressor/s and purposely selected or taken advantage of to facilitate the commission of the crime.1
Evidence must show that the assailants consciously sought the advantage, or that they had the deliberate intent to use this advantage. To take advantage of superior strength means to purposely use force excessively out of proportion to the means of defense available to the person attacked. The appreciation of this aggravating circumstance depends on the age, size and strength of the parties.2
On the other hand, means to weaken the defense suggest that the offender utilizes methods that significantly diminish the capacity of the aggrieved party to resist. The methods employed must not entirely eradicate the potential for the victim to mount a defense, lest it be categorized as treachery.
What does the law say?
Aggravating circumstances. – The following are aggravating circumstances:3
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That advantage be taken of superior strength, or means employed to weaken the defense.4
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Element of Abuse of Superior Strength
Abuse of superior strength is present when:5
- there is a notorious inequality of forces between the victim and the aggressor/s that is plainly and obviously advantageous to the aggressor/s6
- purposely selected or taken advantage of to facilitate the commission of the crime7
What is Abuse of Superior Strength
Article 14, paragraph 15 of the Revised Penal Code outlines the aggravating circumstance of abuse of superior strength. This occurs when the offender takes advantage of a significant power disparity between themselves and the victim, allowing them to successfully perpetrate the crime.
The advantage can manifest in various forms, such as raw physical strength, numerical superiority, or any factor that places the offender in a dominant position over the victim.
To be considered an aggravating circumstance, it is essential to establish that the offender intentionally and purposefully used excessive force that went far beyond what the victim could defend against. In other words, the offender must have deliberately chosen to overpower the victim to achieve their criminal intent.
The appreciation of this aggravating circumstance also takes into account factors like the age, size, and strength of both the offender and the victim. For instance, if an adult male uses overwhelming force against a child or a frail individual, the abuse of superior strength aggravating circumstance becomes more apparent.
In the case of People vs. Conrado,8 the Court said that abuse of superiority is determined by the excess of the aggressor’s natural strength over that of the victim, considering the momentary position of both and the employment of means weakening the defense, although not annulling it.9
Additionally, there must be a deliberate intent on the part of the malefactors to take advantage of their greater number. They must have notoriously selected and made use of superior strength in the commission of the crime.10
Understanding Means Employed to Weaken Defense
The second aggravating circumstance is the means employed to weaken defense. This arises when the offender utilizes specific techniques or strategies to catch the victim off guard or reduce their ability to defend themselves against the crime. Such means may include surprise tactics, deception, or any other method that undermines the victim’s ability to resist the offense.
To be classified as an aggravating circumstance, it is vital to demonstrate that the offender intentionally and purposefully employed these means to facilitate the commission of the crime.
For instance, means to weaken the defense is illustrated by the case of where one struggling with another suddenly throws a cloak over the head of his opponent and while in this situation he wounds or kills him.11
The Court’s interpretation highlights the significance of the offender’s intent. If the offender knowingly and deliberately chose to weaken the victim’s defenses, this aggravating circumstance becomes applicable.
Court Rulings and Interpretations
In the landmark case of People vs. Conrado,12 the Court set the precedent for determining abuse of superior strength. The Court emphasized the need to evaluate the natural strength of the aggressor in comparison to that of the victim. Additionally, they considered the momentary position of both parties and any means employed to weaken the victim’s defense.
Furthermore, the Court clarified that there must be a deliberate intent on the part of the offender to take advantage of their greater strength. The offender must have knowingly and consciously used their superior strength to commit the crime successfully. This element is crucial to establishing the presence of this aggravating circumstance.
In the case of People vs. Revillame,13 the Court was not swayed to the contention of the accused-appellants that the use of gun does not constitute superior strength. The Court echoed its ruling in Cabiling case, in which they held that:
“To properly appreciate it, not only is it necessary to evaluate the physical conditions of the protagonists of opposing forces and the arms or objects employed by both sides, but it is also necessary to analyze the incidents and episodes constituting the development of the event. There is no need for previous agreement among the aggressors.”14
Similarly, in People vs. Padilla,15 the Court held that:
“x x x x . . . . abuse of superior strength is present not only when the offenders enjoy numerical superiority, or there is a notorious inequality of forces between the victim and the aggressor, but also when the offender uses a powerful weapon which is out of proportion to the defense available to the offended party.16
“The accused was armed with a powerful pistol which he purposely used, gaining him an advantage over his victim who only had a piece of plywood to cover himself after he was disarmed”17
Accomplices and Abuse of Superior Strength
“The estimation of this circumstance is essentially inconsistent with the finding that only one of three accused is guilty in the character of principal, while the other two participated in the character of accomplices only.19
“Where the abuse of superior strength is to be estimated as an aggravating circumstance from the mere fact that more than one person participated in the offense, it must appear that the accused cooperated together in some way designed to weaken the defense; and if, in the case before us, the two accomplices really participated in the sense necessary to enable the court to estimate against them the aggravating circumstance mentioned, this would make them guilty in the character of principals.20
“But the court having found that only, one of the three was a principal and that other two did not cooperate in the way necessary to make them principals, it is evident that the single principal cannot be said to have taken advantage of superior strength; nor can said aggravating circumstance be estimated against the accomplices”21
In the case of Lumiguis vs. People,22 the Court clarified the application of abuse of superior strength to accomplices. It emphasized that for this aggravating circumstance to apply to accomplices, they must have actively cooperated in a way that contributed to weakening the victim’s defenses.
The Court ruled that the mere fact that more than one person participated in the offense does not automatically indicate abuse of superior strength. Instead, it must be demonstrated that the accomplices cooperated in a manner specifically designed to undermine the victim’s defense. If the accomplices did not actively contribute to weakening the defense, the aggravating circumstance may not apply to them.
Absorption of Abuse of Superior Strength by Treachery
The Supreme Court also held that abuse of superior strength is absorbed by treachery. Thus, since treachery qualified the crime to murder, the generic aggravating circumstances of abuse of superior strength, in aid of armed men and nighttime are absorbed by and necessarily included in the former.23
One important aspect to note is that abuse of superior strength can be absorbed by treachery. In legal terms, absorption refers to an aggravating circumstance being subsumed under another qualifying circumstance.
If the crime qualifies as murder due to treacherous actions, the generic aggravating circumstances of abuse of superior strength, in aid of armed men, and nighttime are considered part of the treachery charge.
The implication of this absorption is that the specific aggravating circumstance of abuse of superior strength may not be treated separately if treachery is established as an aggravating factor.
The use of superior force and the employment of methods to undermine the defense constitute aggravating circumstances. Abuse of superior strength involves using excessive force on purpose that is out of proportion to the defense of the person being attacked.
The offender abused his raw physical strength, as well as the weapon used in the commission of the crime, the victim’s age, gender, and status.
Means used to weaken the defense, on the other hand, are any procedures or methods used by the perpetrator to decrease the victim’s defense or resistance to the crime.
Before abuse of superior strength and means used to weaken the defense are recognized as aggravating circumstances, it is necessary to evaluate not only the physical conditions of the protagonists of opposing forces and the arms or objects used by both sides, but also to analyze the incidents and episodes that comprise the event’s development.
The circumstance of abuse of superior strength exists whenever there is an imbalance of force between the victim and the aggressor, assuming a situation of superiority of strength that is notoriously advantageous for the aggressor, and the latter takes advantage of it in the commission of the crime; the appreciation of the aggravating circumstance of superior strength is dependent on the parties’ age, size, and strength.
- Valenzuela vs. People, G.R. No. 149988, August 14, 2009
- Article 14, Revised Penal Code
- Article 14, Paragraph 15, Revised Penal Code
- People vs. Villanueva, G.R. No. 226475, March 13, 2017
- G.R. No. 178321, October 5, 2011
- People vs. Lobrigas, et al., G.R. No. 147649, December 17, 2002
- U.S. vs. Devela, G.R. No. 1542, April 9, 1904
- G.R. No. 100714-15, March 3, 1994
- G.R. No. 75508, June 10, 1994
- G.R. No. L-20338, April 27, 1967
- G.R. No. 201867, November 4, 2020