MANILA – In a stunning rebuke of the government's war against drugs, the Supreme Court, acquitting a drug suspect, reminded law enforcers to never sacrifice the Bill of Rights “on the altar of convenience.”
"The State's steadfastness in eliminating the drug menace must be equally matched by its determination to uphold and defend the Constitution. The Court will not sit idly by and allow the Constitution to be added to the mounting body count in the State’s war on illegal drugs,” the Court said through Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa in a decision dated June 16 but only made public recently.
“[W]hen the Constitution is disregarded, the battle waged against illegal drugs becomes a self-defeating and self-destructive enterprise. A battle waged against illegal drugs that tramples on the rights of the people is not a war on drugs; it is a war against the people,” it added.
Ten other Supreme Court magistrates joined Caguioa in the majority, with only Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang, Amy Lazaro-Javier and Mario Lopez dissenting.
The case was decided before the 15th justice Priscilla Baltazar-Padilla was appointed in July.
The case involved drug suspect Jerry Sapla alias Eric Salibad, who was caught in January 2014 with 4 bricks or almost 4,000 grams of marijuana while on board a jeepney in Kalinga.
The Regional Trial Court of Tabuk City had convicted him of transportation of illegal drugs, a decision which the Court of Appeals affirmed.
But on appeal, the Supreme Court acquitted him because of the manner by which he was arrested.
The prosecution said Sapla was caught based on information from an anonymous caller, and later, texter, informing the police in Tabuk City that illegal drugs were to be transported on board a jeepney from Kalinga to Isabela with a description of what the person was wearing – a collared white shirt with green stripes and red ball cap, carrying a blue sack.
Citing American and Philippine cases, the high court said an unverified information from an anonymous informant alone is not sufficient to constitute probable cause to justify extensive warrantless search of a moving vehicle and in this case, into Sapla’s blue sack.
Instead, police must have personal knowledge leading to suspicion and not merely rely on suspicion of another. It listed several other cases where police sought to verify the tip.
“[L]aw enforcers cannot act solely on the basis of confidential or tipped information. A tip is still hearsay no matter how reliable it may be. It is not sufficient to constitute probable cause in the absence of any other circumstance that will arouse suspicion,” it said.
The Court also characterized as double hearsay the information received by the police who arrested Sapla. It appeared that the anonymous text was received through a mobile phone which was not officially issued by the government and the message was only relayed to arresting officers.
In acquitting Sapla, SC overturned the ruling in the cases of People vs Maspil Jr. and People vs Bagista for having "frail" support in jurisprudence.
Maspil allowed an extensive warrantless search in a checkpoint but was based on a case that the current Supreme Court is now saying only declared checkpoints valid.
Bagista relied on a US case where authorities had personally interacted with the accused so as to create probable cause.
SC adopted the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice Teodoro Padilla in the Bagista case that information received by NARCOM agents alone did not give rise to probable cause to justify warrantless search.
The Supreme Court warned that "the citizen's sanctified and heavily-protected right against unreasonable search and seizure will be at the mercy of phony tips" if it ruled to honor anonymous tips, recalling former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban's comparison to Makapilis during the Japanese occupation.
The Court, however, clarified that police enforcers may conduct a “visual and minimally intrusive inspection” on moving vehicles but not of a specific person inside a moving vehicle.
The SC also ruled there was no valid consent to warrantless search in this case and the recovered illegal drugs were inadmissible as evidence under the "fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine," which excludes evidence illegally obtained. This meant that there was no evidence left to support Sapla’s conviction.
In her dissenting opinion, Lazaro-Javier expressed concern that the ruling might “dishearten the legitimate enthusiasm” of police forces, while Lopez said it was not an intrusive search but one validly done inside a vehicle of public transportation with reduced expectation of privacy.
But the majority warned of the repercussions of ignoring basic rights.
“The Court fully recognizes the necessity of adopting a resolute and aggressive stance against the menace of illegal drugs…Nevertheless, by sacrificing the sacred and indelible right against unreasonable searches and seizures for expediency’s sake, the very maintenance of peace and order sought after is rendered wholly nugatory,” the decision said.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers President Edre Olalia welcomed the decision.
“[I]n principle, it is a most welcome majority decision for its unequivocal boldness in indicting abuse of power dressing up the demagogic narrative in the ‘drug war’… It is a pleasant surprise and gives some kind of hope for the people that the judiciary will indeed uphold the Constitution and protect basic rights in relation to draconian measures such as the Terror Law,” he said.
Olalia hopes the reasoning behind the SC ruling would extend to other “abuses or overreach of State power” such as the use of drop boxes and drug lists based on unverified anonymous tips.
“Oplan Tokhang is patently an invalid search as the constitutional and legal requisites are not present nor complied with, i.e., valid warrantless searches and probable cause, and [in the] case of search warrants, searching questions under oath to be determined by a judge and particularly describing with specificity the things to be searched or seized,” he said, referring to the anti-drug campaign linked to alleged extrajudicial killings.
“By parity of reasoning, any other abuse or overreach of State power purportedly against criminality, drugs and terrorism can similarly be struck down when challenged properly,” he added.
A petition filed by the Free Legal Assistance Group and the Center for International Law is currently pending before the Supreme Court, where magistrates once warned Solicitor General Jose Calida: “The OSG’s continued refusal to submit to this Court’s requirement will lead this Court to presume that these information and documents, because they are willfully suppressed, will be adverse to the OSG’s case.”
The Supreme Court in recent decisions also acquitted drug suspects because of the failure of law enforcers to strictly observe the chain of custody rule in handling evidence against the accused.