MANILA— A Capiz court has quashed more search warrants issued by a Manila court, in what progressive groups hailed as a “major pushback” against the so-called “warrant factory” or courts that issue wholesale search warrants.
Judge Rommel Leonor of the Capiz Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 21 voided the search warrants that led to the arrest of Marievic Aguirre, Eleuteria Caro, Jucie Caro, Rollen Catamin and Marilou Catamin — all members of the Tumanduk tribe who were taken into custody in December last year in separate police operations that also left 9 people dead.
They were charged with illegal possession of firearms.
In two separate resolutions, Leonor granted the motions to quash search warrants filed by Aguirre and the group of the Caros and Catamins because in both cases, there were no “specific or particular description[s] of the place and the things to be searched or seized.”
“The place to be searched or the things to be seized must be described on the face of the search warrant itself to avoid confusion on the part of the serving police officers,” read the resolutions.
“The description of the place to be searched must be as specific as the circumstance will ordinarily allow. Meaning to say, such description need not really be that thorough or really specific, but the description will suffice if the serving police officers can ascertain or pinpoint the place to be searched as described in the search warrant to the exclusion of other places or houses,” they added.
The search warrant for Aguirre only mentioned the sitio where she was supposedly residing while the search warrant for the 4 others only indicated the zone of their barangay or village.
The court noted there were no other descriptions such as the location and the color of the house, the materials used for the house and the fence or any distinguishing marks to guide law enforcers in serving the search warrant.
“Categorically speaking, the description ‘unnumbered house’ in these cases is not sufficient to satisfy the constitutional requirement of definiteness or particularity or specificity,” the court said in the case of the Caros and the Catamins, using the same language in describing the insufficiency of indicating the mere sitio.
The court rejected references to sketches and pictures because these were not part of the search warrants.
With the search warrants quashed, the court also ordered suppressed all the evidence obtained during the illegal search.
The court, however, found there was probable cause and the Manila court had jurisdiction to issue the search warrants enforceable outside its territorial jurisdiction.
This is in line with guidelines issued by the Supreme Court allowing executive judges and vice-executive judges of the Quezon City and Manila RTCs to “issue the warrants, if justified, which may be served in places outside the territorial jurisdiction of the said courts,” in connection with special criminal cases such as illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions, money laundering and violations of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, among others.
The search warrants were issued by Manila RTC First Vice Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo Dela Rosa, who also issued some of the search warrants which led to the killing of 9 activists in the Calabarzon on March 7 this year, in what has become known as "bloody Sunday."
The operations in Calinog, Iloilo and Tapaz, Capiz in December last year, based on Dela Rosa’s search warrants, also led to the slay of 9 tribesmen killed.
The deaths have led activists, rights groups and lawyers groups to call on the Supreme Court to act to stop “weaponized” search warrants.
Last week, the Supreme Court issued new rules limiting the scope of the RTC’s issuance of search warrants which will now only be enforceable within the judicial region of the issuing court.
It also prohibited multiple issuance of search warrants based on the same evidence, which was the case for the Caros and Catamins.
“This is a breath of fresh air against the suffocating repression of the Duterte administration and seems to be a direct result of the Filipino people's assertion of their basic rights,” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said in a statement, referring to the Capiz court ruling.
“This victory is in addition to the Supreme Court's recent order disallowing executive judges of Manila and Quezon cities from issuing warrants outside of their jurisdictions, as well as ordering the PNP to wear bodycams in their operations,” he added.
The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers welcomed the ruling but said the delay was "lamentable."
"Once again, this latest in a slow yet seemingly steady stream of trial courts' decisions junking assailable search warrants is clear proof that roving or imported warrants solicited by the police was an idea gone wrong and abused," said NUPL president Edre Olalia.
Two other courts have previously quashed search warrants issued by Quezon City RTC Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert, also accused of being a warrant factory.
A Mandaluyong court in February quashed the search warrant issued by Villavert against journalist Lady Ann Salem and trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago for failure to “specify with sufficient particularity” the items to be seized when the two were arrested on December 10 last year.
A Bacolod court also voided Villavert’s search warrants in March this year due to failure to particularly describe the place to be searched.
Zarate hopes more and more search warrants, arrest warrants and “trumped-up” charges against activists will be dismissed soon.
“Like the dangers brought by red-tagging, 'warrant factories' kill, thus, it should be stopped and the ones behind it will be investigated and be made accountable for their dastardly deeds,” he said.
On Twitter, former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te proposed the creation of the equivalent of “magistrate courts” tasked with issuing warrants, writs and orders on preliminary matters within a “defined jurisdiction” to free up trial courts.
“Establishing magistrate courts could also clarify how a coordinate court could act on a motion to quash the warrant of another coordinate court under R126, s. 14 (where issuing court and trial courts are both RTCs, for example). An RTC has no review power over another,” he said, referring to Rule 126 of the Rules of Court.
“Magistrate courts could also act quicker as they are not trying cases but could be tasked only with resolving all preliminary incidents such as (a) search (not arrest) warrants, (b) injunctions, (c) attachments, and even (d) bail, and (e) Habeas Corpus, Amparo, and Habeas Data,” he added.