MANILA — On his final week in office, Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta is urged by various lawyers and rights groups to revise the rules on search warrants and leave a legacy of stopping killings, red-tagging and other abuses supposedly committed by state forces.
In a letter addressed to Peralta and other SC justices Monday, some 139 lawyers and legal luminaries led by National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers chair Neri Colmenares and its president Edre Olalia asked Peralta to take “immediate, concrete and responsive action” on allegations that a large number of search warrants have been issued by Metro Manila courts to be enforced in other areas, which supposedly led to killings and arrests of activists and dissenters.
The most recent is the simultaneous service of search warrants on March 7, dubbed as Bloody Sunday, after 9 activists were killed in Cavite, Batangas and Rizal.
“We urge the Supreme Court to immediately investigate this deadly trend that has not only resulted in the death and incarceration of many peaceful citizens, but has also impacted on the public’s confidence in the integrity, prudence, and independence of judges,” they said.
Among those who signed the letter are petitioners and lawyers against the Anti-Terrorism Act, including former Vice President Jejomar Binay, former Constitutional framer Christian Monsod, Reps. Edcel Lagman and Carlos Zarate, Dean Chel Diokno, and former SC spokesperson Ted Te.
Law groups Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties, the Free Legal Assistance Group, Centerlaw, the Public Interest Law Center and Manananggol Laban sa EJK also joined, as well as law deans and academics.
Aside from a probe, Peralta, who is retiring on March 27, is also asked to begin efforts to amend existing rules on the issuance and implementation of search warrants.
“The number of deaths resulting from the execution of search warrants has grown to an alarming level. We ask the Court to initiate reforms to help ensure that judicial processes are not abused to violate the constitutional rights to life, liberty, security, and property of all Filipinos and particularly, based on recent events, activists and dissenters,” the lawyers said.
LAWYERS: DO AWAY WITH ‘WHOLESALE’ AND ‘ROVING’ SEARCH WARRANTS
Part of the proposal is a review of a 2004 Supreme Court circular which allows executive judges of Manila and Quezon City to issue search warrants enforceable anywhere in the country. Lawyers call these, “remote or roving” search warrants.
This is allowed in special criminal cases involving heinous crimes, illegal gambling, illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions, as well as violations of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, the Intellectual Property Code, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001 and the Tariff and Customs Code.
But activists and rights groups objected to this practice, saying this has “triggered massive violations, including the increase of political prisoners,” according to political detainees support group KAPATID in a separate letter to Peralta. The group warned of “more waves of politically motivated arrests and killings.”
“Applications for search warrants in the special criminal cases stated in A.M. No. 03-8-02-SC must be allowed to be filed only with the nearest court outside the locality where the place to be searched is located but within the judicial region of that place,” the lawyers said.
Lawyers also objected to “wholesale” applications for search warrants, which Olalia said puts into question “whether there was adequate time and ample opportunity to thoroughly vet, scrutinize, ask searching questions.”
Court Administrator Midas Marquez recently revealed that police applied for 72 search warrants in Manila and Antipolo in the lead-up to Bloody Sunday, with 4 judges in Manila issuing 42 search warrants in a matter of 2 days.
In 2019, Quezon City executive judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert issued multiple search warrants which led to the arrest of around 60 individuals in Negros and Tondo.
Two courts eventually voided some of the search warrants Villavert issued, on the ground that they were vague and there were questions surrounding the propriety of their issuance since applicants and their informants made inconsistent statements.
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.
Lawyers asked the high court to make sure that judges conduct rigorous examination of claims by police and military applicants and their informants to avoid the possibility that some informants may have been “coached” or “coerced”, and to require either a certification that no previous applications have been filed or, if there was a previous application, why the same was denied by another court.
LAWYERS: ENFORCE SEARCH WARRANTS DURING OFFICE HOURS WITH BODY CAMERAS
Also included in the lawyers’ proposal is to require the service of search warrants during office hours unless there are compelling reasons to be stated in a sworn statement, and to mandate the use of body cameras and other video-recording device during enforcement of warrants, which the Supreme Court is already considering.
Almost all of the operations where activists were killed or arrested took place in the wee hours of the morning, with police claiming they recovered illegal firearms and explosives during a search.
But witnesses and families of those killed or arrested all claim police barged into their house, conducted a preliminary search with subjects of search warrants and their companions either brought out of the house or made to lie face down on the ground before the actual search is conducted, by which time illegal firearms and explosives will have been recovered in front of witnesses from villages.
These supposedly happened in the cases of 61-year-old paralegal Nimfa Lanzanas, labor leaders Manny Asuncion, Elizabeth Camoral and Steve Mendoza as well as with journalist Lady Ann Salem and unionist Rodrigo Esparago.
“There should be an express prohibition against any restraint, relocation, or arrest of the subject of the search or other persons unless they are engaged in the actual commission of an offense or there are compelling reasons to use reasonable force in implementing the search,” the lawyers said, to avoid the possibility of planting of evidence.
LAWYERS: AUTOMATIC REVIEW IN CASE OF DEATHS, RECORDS SHOULD BE AVAILABLE
In addition, lawyers urged the high court to conduct an automatic review of the implementation of search warrants in cases of deaths, with all documents made available immediately to the Supreme Court, who may then either ask the Court of Appeals or form a committee to review the cases to determine if the search was regularly conducted.
The return, a document which serves as a report to the trial court about the service of the search warrant, should include an incident report, the reasons why persons were arrested or killed and the result of the inquest proceedings, among other relevant documents such as a SOCO investigation report, the lawyers said.
“The tampering of any record or video recording or the circumvention or violation of the rules to be possibly promulgated should give rise to the presumption that the search and any incidental arrest were irregular. In these cases, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties should not apply. Any supposed evidence obtained from such search should be considered inadmissible,” the lawyers proposed.
In all the cases, the lawyers suggested that the records of the application for search warrants including the transcripts of stenographic notes should be made available to the inquest prosecutor or the defense counsel.
The lawyers of Reina Mae Nasino, one of those arrested in 2019, complained how Villavert, the Quezon City judge, refused to provide them with records of the application while then-handling judge Marivic Balisi-Umali refused to subpoena the records, preventing them from immediately questioning the legality of her arrest.
Nasino gave birth to baby River while under detention. Baby River died a few weeks after being separated from her mother.
Access to records of search warrant applications was instrumental in securing journalist Salem's release early this month, as it revealed inconsistencies in the statements of the police officers and the informant, leading a Mandaluyong court to conclude there was no probable cause established in the issuance of the search warrants.
“The inquest prosecutor must be able to converse separately and freely with the respondents for the purpose of ascertaining their counter-allegations pertaining to the circumstances attending the service of the search warrants,” the lawyers said.
PERALTA: ‘TOO LATE’
Various groups have previously called on the Supreme Court to conduct its own probe on the Bloody Sunday killings and suggested several revisions to the rules including the use of body cameras.
Marquez, the court Administrator, however sought to distinguish the issuance of the search warrants from their implementation, and warned any action that the SC might take might “preempt” any judicial recourse any party may take.
On Friday, Peralta echoed Marquez’ statement by pointing out that the proper remedy under the rules is for the affected parties to file the necessary motions with the regional trial court, not the Supreme Court.
“Kung mali ang pag-serve ng search warrant and those who are affected by the service ng search warrant, ang remedy doon ay judicial. (If the search warrant was served improperly, those who are affected may resort to judicial remedies.) They may file a motion to quash the search warrant because of the unresasonable search,” Peralta said, adding that it will have to wait until the law enforcers are able to file their return.
“Your question is, pwede bang pakialaman ng Supreme Court? (Your question is, can Supreme Court step in?) Premature for me to say that because as of now, what we know are those we read from the papers are the case of other persons eh. We will tackle that issue anyway this coming Tuesday,” he added, referring to March 23 during their weekly en banc session.
But some lawyers, including retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio invoked the Supreme Court’s other function under the Constitution to “promulgate rules concerning the protection and enforcement of constitutional rights.”
Carpio cited as examples the rules on writ of amparo, habeas data and kalikasan which the Supreme Court issued during the time of former Chief Justice Reynato Puno. Puno organized a national summit on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in July 2007.
But these writs have been criticized as “weak” or insufficient, especially with the recent junking of pleas filed by groups such as NUPL and rights groups alliance KARAPATAN. Both groups have called for the SC to strengthen the writs.
“If you ask me now, it's too late for me to do that, because I have only one week,” Peralta said on Friday.
“We have not yet received any recommendation for these amendments so that means that they were very good. Walang nagko-complain eh (No one’s complaining). Now, if there is another writ, sa tingin ko ang tinatanong mo (you’re asking about) writ of kalayaan ata eh, probably the one who will replace me na lang so that for the last week of my term, matulog naman ako nang mahimbing (so I can sleep soundly),” he said in jest.
Peralta however divulged the Supreme Court has started revisions of the Rules of Court, going as far as Rule 114 on bail. Search warrant is under Rule 126, he said.
“Any amendment or suggestion that they want, we will invite the parties. We will also invite police officers and have a debate on this so when the rules come out, tney will not say that this is biased to this, or to this. We do not like that. The rules must be done, must be applicable to all persons without bias and discrimination,” he said, explaining that crafting of rules take time and is not that easy.
“We believe the Supreme Court – because it has the power to promulgate rules pertaining to practice and pleadings – we are also very careful in performing that duty because it is only the Philippines where the Supreme Court is allowed to promulgate rules kaya inaalagaan namin kasi yung power na yan bihira eh (that’s why we’re taking care of that rare power),” he said.
LEAVE A LEGACY
Despite Peralta’s statements Friday, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Secretary General Renato Reyes, Jr., over the weekend, pleaded once more to Peralta to make his last en banc session count.
“On his last en banc as Chief Justice, we urge CJ Diosdado Peralta to act on the various appeals to the SC to protect lawyers, petitioners and the people amid the rampant human rights abuses happening in the country today," Reyes said in a statement.
"Let his legacy be that of stopping the tide of extrajudicial killings, trumped-up charges, red-tagging, terrorist-labeling and other abuses being committed by state forces.”
“Human rights are taking a serious beating and the SC cannot sit idly by as blood flows from the deaths arising from the warrants issued by the courts.”