SC: Traffic violation justifies police search


This Motion for Reconsideration[1] filed by Romy Mallari (hereinafter referred to as petitioner) seeks the reconsideration of the Court's Resolution[2] dated June 28, 2017.

At around 8:30 p.m. of February 2, 2005, Police Officer 1 Eddie Esidera (PO1 Esidera), PO1 Glen Amoyen, PO2 Geronimo Tan, PO2 Emano and Russel Calubag were manning a checkpoint at South Macopa, Barangay, Macagtas, Catarman, Northern Samar.

During the checkpoint, PO1 Esidera flagged down a motorcycle that had no plate number driven by the petitioner. The petitioner was then asked to present his driver's license and the vehicle's registration number, which, he failed to produce. Consequently, the police officers searched the motorcycle. During the search, the police asked the petitioner to open the U-box of the motorcycle. Upon opening the U-box, the police saw illegal gambling paraphernalia for "Swertres Lotto,”[3] consisting of four (4) tally sheets, one (1) bet stub and money in the sum of Php 1,095.00.[4] The tally sheets bore the date February 2, 2005. The petitioner was arrested and brought to the police station. The illegal gambling paraphernalia, cash and the motorcycle were likewise seized and taken to the police station.

Subsequently, an Information for Violation of Section 3, Paragraph B of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9287 or "An Act Increasing Penalties for Numbers Games" was filed against the petitioner. The petitioner was indicted for unlawfully and feloniously engaging, participating and taking part as a runner in the illegal gambling game of Swertres Lotto, without securing the necessary permit or license from any competent authority.[5]

During his arraignment, the petitioner pleaded not guilty. Trial on the merits ensued thereafter.[6]

On August 9, 2011, the Regional Trial Court (RTC) rendered a Decision[7] finding the petitioner guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 2, in relation to Section 3, of R.A. No. 9287. The RTC sentenced the petitioner to suffer a penalty of six (6) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years of imprisonment.

The petitioner appealed the same ruling.

On October 23, 2015, the Court of Appeals (CA) rendered a Decision[8] affirming the RTC ruling with modification. The CA found the petitioner guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violation of Section 2, in relation to Section 3, of R.A. No. 9287, but modified the penalty by sentencing the petitioner to an indeterminate prison term of six (6) years and one (1) day, as minimum, to seven (7) years, as maximum. The dispositive portion of the CA decision reads:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the Decision dated August 9, 2011, of the [RTC], Branch 20, Catarman, Northern Samar, in Criminal Case No. C-3892 finding [the petitioner] guilty beyond reasonable doubt of Violating Section 2 in relation to Section 3 of R.A. 9287 is hereby AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION that the appellant is sentenced to suffer an indeterminate prison term of six (6) years and one (1) day, as minimum term, to seven (7) years, as the maximum term, of imprisonment.

Aggrieved, the petitioner filed a Petition for Review on Certiorari[10] before this Court.

On June 28, 2017, the Court issued a Resolution[11] denying the petition for lack of any reversible error committed by the appellate court.[12]

On October 6, 2017, the Court received petitioner's Motion for Reconsideration.[13] In his Motion, the petitioner prays for a reversal of the Court's earlier ruling, on the following grounds, to wit: (i) the evidence seized is inadmissible for having been illegally obtained by the police officers; and (ii) the prosecution failed to prove the guilt of the petitioner beyond reasonable doubt.

Ruling of the Court

The motion is denied.

A perusal of the Motion for Reconsideration reveals that no new matters or substantial arguments have been raised to warrant a reversal or even a modification of the Court's earlier ruling.

Be that as it may, the CA correctly convicted the petitioner for violation of Section 2, in relation to Section 3, of R.A. No. 9287, and properly sentenced him to suffer an indeterminate prison term of six (6) years and one (1) day, as minimum, to seven (7) years, as maximum.

Essentially, Section 4 of R.A. No. 9287 provides that the possession of any gambling paraphernalia and other materials used in the illegal numbers game operation shall be deemed prima facie evidence of any offense covered by the law.

In line with this, Section 2 of the same Act punishes any person who acts as a runner of an illegal numbers game as follows:
Sec. 2. Definition of Terms. - As used in this Act, the following terms shall mean:

x x x x

f) Personnel or Staff of Illegal Numbers Game Operation. - Any person, who acts in the interest of the maintainer, manager or operator, such as, but not limited to, an accountant, cashier, checker, guard, runner, table manager, usher, watcher, or any other personnel performing such similar functions in a building structure, vessel, vehicle, or any other place where an illegal numbers game is operated or conducted."

x x x x
Correspondingly, a person convicted as a runner shall suffer a penalty of six (6) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years of imprisonment.[14]

In the instant case, the petitioner was caught in possession of four (4) tally sheets and one (1) bet stub used in the illegal game of Swertres Lotto, along with money bills amounting to Php 1,095.00. There is no doubt that petitioner's possession of the illegal gambling paraphernalia, together with the money created the presumption that he was a runner of Swertres Lotto. All that petitioner offered to rebut this presumption is the weak and self-serving defense of denial. Particularly, the petitioner disavowed ownership of the motorcycle and the gambling paraphernalia. Petitioner further claimed that he was merely on his way to buy ink at 8:30 p.m. of February 2, 2005.

It is elementary in criminal law that the defense of denial is viewed with disfavor as it can be easily concocted. Moreover, as correctly observed by the trial court, the gambling paraphernalia were found along with petitioner's raincoat, and the gambling tally sheets were dated February 2, 2005, the date of petitioner's arrest. All these circumstances undoubtedly established the petitioner's guilt.

In a bid to exonerate himself, petitioner assails the admissibility of the gambling paraphernalia seized during his arrest. Petitioner urges that the evidence should be excluded as the same were obtained in violation of his constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. There being no possible admissible evidence, he should be acquitted.

The Court is not persuaded.

Enshrined in the Constitution is the inviolable right of the people to be secure in their persons and properties against unreasonable searches and seizures.[15] Any evidence obtained in violation of such Constitutional right shall be inadmissible for any purpose in any proceeding.[16] However, the constitutional proscription against warrantless searches and seizures is not absolute but admits of certain exceptions, such as (i) a warrantless search incidental to a lawful arrest; (ii) search of evidence in plain view; (iii) search of a moving vehicle; (iv) consented warrantless search; (v) customs search; (vi) a stop and frisk search; and (vii) exigent and emergency circumstances.[17]

In the case at bar, the discovery and consequent seizure of the gambling paraphernalia were validly done pursuant to a warrantless search incident to the petitioner's lawful arrest, coupled with his consent to the search.The records show that the petitioner was flagged down for driving a plateless motorcycle. Moreover, petitioner was caught driving with an expired student permit. These acts constitute violations of R.A. No. 4136 (Land Transportation and Traffic Code).[18] As such, petitioner was properly arrested inflagrante delico for the same offense. In fact, petitioner himself admitted during the pre-trial of the case that he was caught by the police officers transgressing traffic laws.[19]

Relatedly, jurisprudence instructs that in lawful arrests, the apprehending officers may conduct a warrantless search not only on the person of the suspect, but also of the area within the latter's reach. A valid arrest allows the seizure of evidence or dangerous weapons either on the person of the one arrested or within the area of his immediate control. The phrase "within the area of his immediate control" means the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.[20] Thus, the police were justified in searching the U-box, as it was within the area of petitioner's control.

Likewise, the records show that when the police officers asked petitioner to open the motorcycle's U-box, the latter willingly obliged to the officers' request.[21] The petitioner's acquiescence to the request was evident from the fact that one of the apprehending officers, PO1 Esidera was the petitioner's brother-in-law. This fact swayed the petitioner into freely obliging to the police officers' request. Considering that the petitioner willingly opened the U-box, the search of the motorcycle fell within the purview of a consented search.

It bears stressing that "the constitutional immunity against unreasonable searches and seizures is a personal right which may be waived.”[22] In Caballes v. CA,[23] the Court laid down guidelines in determining whether the consent given by the accused may be regarded as consensual, mandating that the consent must be unequivocal, specific, and intelligently given, uncontaminated by any duress or coercion.[24] Likewise, courts must consider the characteristics of the person giving consent, as well as the environment within which the consent is given, and take particular regard of the following:
(1) the age of the defendant; (2) whether he was in a public or secluded location; (3) whether he objected to the search or passively looked on; (4) the education and intelligence of the defendant; (5) the presence of coercive police procedures; (6) the defendant's belief that no incriminating evidence will be found; (7) the nature of the police questioning; (8) the environment in which the questioning took place; and (9) the possibly vulnerable subjective state of the person consenting.[25] (Citations omitted)
Furthermore, in the cases where the Court upheld the validity of a consented warrantless search and seizure, the police officers' request to search personal effects was orally articulated to the accused and in such language that left no room for doubt that the latter fully understood what was requested.[26] In People v. Montilla,[27] consent was presumed from the fact that the accused spontaneously performed affirmative acts of volition by himself opening the bag without being forced or intimidated to do so. These acts were construed as a clear waiver of the accused's right.

In the case at bar, the records show that the petitioner readily acceded to the police officers' request for him to open the U-box. The request was made in such language that left no room for doubt that the petitioner fully understood what was requested of him. Petitioner spontaneously performed affirmative acts of volition by himself opening the U-box without being forced or intimidated to do so. These acts may be construed as a clear waiver of his right to object to the search. Having consented to the search, he is precluded from later on complaining. Moreover, petitioner was in a public thoroughfare, at an area designated as a checkpoint. The environment wherein the questioning was conducted, as well as the nature of the police questioning, were non-threatening, more so, that one of the apprehending officers was the petitioner's brother-in-law.

In addition, the petitioner never claimed that he was coerced by the officers into agreeing to the search. In fact, the petitioner himself admitted in open court that he understood that the police officers were merely performing their duties when they arrested him. He related that there was no misunderstanding between him and police officers.[28]

Finally, the Court finds that the CA correctly modified the penalty imposed by the RTC.

Section 3 of R.A. No. 9287 provides that:
Sec. 3. Punishable Acts. - Any person who participates in any illegal numbers game shall suffer the following penalties:

x x x x

b) The penalty of imprisonment from six (6) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years, if such person acts as a personnel or staff of an illegal numbers game operation;"[29]

x x x x
Parenthetically, under the Indeterminate Sentence Law, if an offense is punished by a special law, the court shall sentence the accused to an indeterminate sentence, the maximum term of which shall not exceed the maximum fixed by the said law and the minimum shall not be less than the minimum term prescribed by the same.[30] Accordingly, the petitioner was correctly sentenced to suffer an indeterminate prison term of six (6) years and one (1) day, as minimum, to seven (7) years, as maximum.

WHEREFORE, the Court resolves to DENY WITH FINALITY the Motion for Reconsideration as no substantial arguments were presented to warrant the reversal of the assailed decision.
No further pleadings or motions will be entertained.

Let entry of judgment be issued immediately."

[1] Rollo, at 161-167.
[2] Id. at 159-160.
[3] A three digit illegal gambling game.
[4] The money confiscated consisted of 10 pieces of Php20.00 bills; 1 piece Plip 500.00 bill; I piece Php 100.00 bill; 32 pieces of Php 5.00 coins; and 3 pieces of Php 10.00 coins.
[5] Rollo, pp. 98-100.
[6] Id. at 79.
[7] Id. at 79-83.
[8] Penned by Assocuate Justice Edward 3. Contreras, with Associate Justices Edgardo L. Delos Santos and Renato C. Francisco, concurring; id. at 97-106.
[9] Id. at 105.
[10] Id. at 9-24.
[11] Id. at 159-160.
[12] Id. at 159.
[13] Id. at 161-167.
[14] Republic Act No. 9287 (2004), Section 3.
[15] Caballes v. CA, 424 Phil. 263, 285 (2002).
[16] 1987 CONSTITUTION, Article III, Sec. 2.
[17] People v. Cogaed, 740 Phil. 212, 228 (2014).
[18] Republic Act No. 4136(1964).
[19]Rollo, p. 147.
[20] People v. Calantiao, 736 Phil. 661, 671 (2014), citing People v. Valeroso, 614 Phil. 236, 252 (2009).
[21] Rollo, p. 147.
[22] Caballes v. CA, supra note 15, at 286.
[23] 424 Phil. 263 (2002).
[24] Id.
[25] Id. at 286.
[26] Id.
[27] 349 Phil. 640,661-662(1998).
[28]Rollo, p. 82.
[29] Republic Act No. 9287 (2004), Section 3.
[30] Act No. 4103 (1965), Section 1.