Batangas court clears activist in another case of void search warrants

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 01 2021 12:36 PM

Protesters call on the government to stop the red-tagging of activists and journalists, and instead focus on the COVID-19 response, during a protest in Mendiola in Manila on Feb. 5, 2021. The group scored the Duterte administration for supposedly failing to address the economic concerns of the poorest sectors of the country, specially at the time of the coronavirus pandemic. ABS-CBN News
Protesters call on the government to stop the red-tagging of activists and journalists, and instead focus on the COVID-19 response, during a protest in Mendiola in Manila on Feb. 5, 2021. The group scored the Duterte administration for supposedly failing to address the economic concerns of the poorest sectors of the country, specially at the time of the coronavirus pandemic. ABS-CBN News


MANILA — A Batangas court has cleared an activist of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, voiding the search warrants issued by a Manila court that led to his arrest.

The Tanauan, Batangas Regional Trial Court Branch 6 dismissed the charges against Erlindo Baez, the spokesperson and provincial coordinator of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Batangas, after finding the search warrants defective.

The search warrants, issued by Manila RTC Judge Jason Zapanta, “failed to specifically and sufficiently describe the place to be searched” as they merely indicated the village — “Brgy. Vicente, Sto. Tomas City, Batangas.”

“There is no description of the location of the accused’s house sufficient to distinguish it from other houses in Brgy. San Vicente, Sto. Tomas City, Batangas. There is great doubt as to the location of the intended subject of the search and seizure operation,” Judge Jose Recuerdo Flores said in his order dated Oct. 25.

He noted the prosecution failed to present pictures or documents to prove the specificity of the location indicated in the search warrants, and instead relied on the presumption of regularity which, it said, cannot prevail over the constitutional right of presumption of innocence of the accused.

Flores also said that nothing in the records showed Zapanta “personally and thoroughly examined the applicant and his witnesses,” as required by the Constitution and the rules.

“There is nothing from which the court can infer whether the requisite examination was made and from which the factual basis for the probable cause to issue the search warrant was derived,” he said.

The prosecution submitted documents regarding the seizure of a hand grenade, firearm, magazine and rounds of ammunition but not the evidence presented before Zapanta.

Baez, who was not in his house at the time of the service of the search warrants in March, was arrested only on Oct. 6 this year in Sariaya, Quezon.

KARAPATAN has called for his immediate release, along with another activist Willy Capareño, coordinator of Anakpawis-Batangas.

“It is only clear that Baez and Capareño are but victims of the Duterte government crackdown against activists, and are deprived and violated of their human rights after their physical and mental torture after their arrest,” the rights group said in a statement Monday.

Watch more News on iWantTFC

BLOODY SUNDAY

The raid on Baez’s house occurred on March 7 this year, the same day nine activists were killed in police operations, in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Forty-two search warrants issued by different Manila courts were simultaneously served on that day, based on a report by Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez. 

Marquez revealed that police made 63 applications for search warrants at the Manila RTC, of which 42 were granted, 19 were denied, while two were withdrawn. The hearings on these applications were finished in two days.

Nine applications were also filed in Antipolo, of which four were granted, four were denied and one was pending at the time the report was made on March 12 or five days after the killings.

Activists, rights groups and human rights lawyers have questioned how courts could have complied with the constitutional requirement to personally determine probable cause to issue arrest or search warrants after examining the complainant and the witnesses under oath, given the short timeframe.

They also challenged the authority given to Manila and Quezon City Regional Trial Court executive judges to issue search warrants enforceable anywhere in the country. 

This came as various trial courts junked search warrants against activists and journalists, including the case of Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem whose search warrant was found to be vague and was issued by Quezon City Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert despite conflicting statements from the police and the supposed witness.

A Bacolod court in March this year voided another search warrant issued by Burgos-Villavert in 2019 for failure to describe the place to be searched with particularity.

More search warrants issued by Burgos-Villavert were quashed in August this year, this time against two peace talks staffers of the National Democratic Front due to inconsistent statements and lack of particularity of the firearms to be seized.

Watch more News on iWantTFC

A Legazpi court in August also quashed search warrants against a pastor charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

The deadly service of search warrants on Bloody Sunday led to calls for the use of body-worn cameras during police operations.

In response to call for reforms and reports of abuses, the Supreme Court, in July this year, limited the scope of the issuance of search warrants to only within their judicial regions and prohibited “wholesale” warrants amid accusations of courts acting as “warrant factories.”

The SC also mandated the use of body-worn cameras during service of search and arrest warrants. 

AO 35 TASK FORCE

As a result of the Bloody Sunday killings, the Department of Justice initiated its own probe through Administrative Order 35 Task Force on extrajudicial killings.

The task force has yet to publicize the result of their probe but Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Monday its special investigating team “is ready with its first report.”

“Just wait a few more days. We’re just going over it,” he said.