MANILA — The Philippine National Police (PNP) applied for a total of 72 search warrants for the raids on March 7 that eventually became a “Bloody Sunday” in the Calabarzon, with a lawyer's group describing it as “trawling” or more than a fishing expedition.
Of the 72 applications, 63 were filed before the regional trial court (RTC) of Manila and the other 9 were filed before the Antipolo regional trial court, according to a Mar. 12, 2021 report by Court Administrator Midas Marquez to Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta.
Peralta, on Mar. 8 or a day after nine activists were killed during simultaneous raids in the Calabarzon region, required Marquez to submit a report on the search warrants issued by the two RTCs.
In his report, Marquez called the 63 applications in the Manila RTC an “unusually large number” that the executive judge had to seek and was granted authority to equally distribute the burden of conducting hearings to process the applications.
The Philippine Constitution and the Rules of Court require judges to personally determine if there is probable cause to issue arrest or search warrants after examining the complainant and witnesses under oath.
The Manila RTC executive judge, according to Marquez, had to enlist the help of his 3 vice executive judges in order to finish the hearings in 2 days, dividing the workload into:
- 17 - Executive Judge
- 16 - 1st Vice Executive Judge
- 15 - 2nd Vice Executive Judge
- 15 - 3rd Vice Executive Judge
“Of the 63 applications, 42 were granted, 19 were denied, while 2 were withdrawn,” Marquez said. No reasons were cited for the withdrawal of the application.
“In Antipolo, nine (9) applications were filed. Four (4) were granted, four (4) were denied, while one (1) remains pending,” he added.
Marquez did not explicitly mention the PNP in his report as the applicants of the search warrants, although the documents show police officers acted as applicants.
The search warrants issued in Manila were intended to be served in different parts of Judicial Region 4A, which corresponds to the Calabarzon region, by virtue of a 2004 Supreme Court circular.
The said circular allows executive and vice executive judges of Manila and Quezon City RTCs to issue search warrants enforceable in any part of the country in certain cases such as illegal possession of firearms and explosives, upon applications filed by law enforcement agencies such as the PNP, National Bureau of Investigation, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, among others.
Unlike the search warrants issued by the Manila RTC, the warrants issued by Antipolo RTC could only be enforced within its jurisdiction.
“It appears that the 42 search warrants obtained in Manila, plus the four (4) in Antipolo, were served simultaneously on 7 March 2021. From news reports, it can be gleaned that this resulted in the death of nine (9), and the arrest of six (6) individuals,” Marquez said.
The huge number of search warrant applications did not escape the attention of National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) President Edre Olalia.
“Isn't the sheer number of applications all in one swoop curious enough?,” he asked in response to the news of Marquez’ report.
“Some say it is a ‘fishing expedition.’ I am more inclined to agree that it is ‘trawling,’” Olalia said.
Human rights and lawyers’ groups have long raised the issue of courts acting as “warrant factories” issuing multiple search warrants in a day or two, such as in the case of Quezon City RTC executive judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert who issued search warrants in 2019.
Those warrants led to the arrest of around 60 individuals in Negros and Tondo. Another set of warrants issued in December last year led to the arrest of the so-called Human Rights Day 7 in Quezon City, Manila and Mandaluyong.
Two RTCs eventually voided some of the search warrants Villavert issued.
“Given the inordinate number of applications for serial warrants, it is a fair question to inquire whether there was adequate time and ample opportunity to thoroughly vet, scrutinize, ask searching questions, and inquire on the timing, clustering, grounds & even relevant information that is available on the subjects,” Olalia said in a message to ABS-CBN News.
“While applications/issuances and service are two distinct - but related - dots in the process, the former was the legal tool that would clinch whatever premeditated or contrived implementation was in the offing," he added.
"Our honorable judges are expected to be our trusted shields against intrusive incursions into our sanctuaries we call home,” Olalia said.
Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes, Jr. described the memorandum issued by Marquez as a "cop-out" and accused the latter's office of "hand washing."
While Marquez' office had "admitted that an unusually large number of search warrant applications were filed," Reyes said it "does not question how judges evaluated the testimonies of the applicants and their so-called witnesses in a matter of just 2 days."
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"The unusually large number should have given the justices pause. By issuing the search warrants that were sought on questionable grounds, the judges cannot say that their hands are clean. They became equally liable in the deaths of 9 activists," Reyes said in a statement.
He accused the Office of the Court Administrator of "trying to shield" the Manila RTC executive judges from the liabilities of the killed activists.
Marquez, in his report, sought to distinguish the issuance of the search warrants from their implementation.
“It must be noted, however, that the issuance of the search warrants by the judges and their service or implementation by the law enforcers are two (2) different acts. The issuance of search warrants is judicial in nature. As such, judicial remedies are available to those aggrieved by their issuance,” he said.
“Any action at this time on their issuance may preempt any judicial recourse any party may take,” he added.
No less than Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta had previously defended Villavert’s issuance of search warrants to be served in other jurisdictions.
On Friday last week, Chief Justice nominee SC Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando also sought to defend judges who issued search warrants according to the rules.
“If he really issued it on the basis of what our rules required, I think the judge should not be blamed for that. It’s a different thing when it comes to the implementation of the search warrant,” he said.
Activists and rights groups have accused the Philippine government of “weaponizing” search warrants against alleged communist rebels.
Lawyers have also urged the high court to review its rules on issuance and service of search warrants.
SC magistrates on Tuesday began tackling the issue of requiring body cameras in the service of warrants.