SC: Drug war cannot ignore constitutional rights

The Supreme Court reminded law enforcers to never sacrifice the Bill of Rights “on the altar of convenience” in acquitting a drug suspect, in a decision it released recently and in a stern rebuke of the government's war against drugs. Read more: SC backs human rights in drug rap posted August 19, 2020 at 01:20 am by Rey E. Requejo and Jimbo Gulle.

This developed as President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday night he would do what he wanted for the country despite what critics said of his war against drugs, warning that illegal drugs “destroy the spirit of the nation.”

"The State's steadfastness in eliminating the drug menace must be equally matched by its determination to uphold and defend the Constitution,” the Court said through Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, in a decision dated June 16 but only made public recently.

"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," it added.

“[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,” the high court added

Ten other magistrates joined Caguioa in the majority, with only Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang, Amy Lazaro-Javier and Mario Lopez dissenting.

The case was decided before President Duterte appointed the 15th justice, Priscilla Baltazar-Padilla, to the Supreme Court in July.

In his televised address to the nation from Davao City on Monday, Duterte again warned drug peddlers that he would personally kill them if they did not stop their illegal trade, which he said left Filipinos “gunggong na” (dumb in English) and of no use to society anymore.

The President said this while slamming human rights workers—saying they did nothing for the country—and criticizing the Catholic Church for its opposition to the death penalty.

“What about social justice?” Duterte added, as he called drug addiction “one of the country’s grave social problems.”

The case involved drug suspect Jerry Sapla alias Eric Salibad, who was caught in January 2014 with four 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. Read more: SC backs human rights in drug rap posted August 19, 2020 at 01:20 am by Rey E. Requejo and Jimbo Gulle.

Citing American and Philippine cases, the high court said 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.

“Law 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Read more: SC backs human rights in drug rap posted August 19, 2020 at 01:20 am by Rey E. Requejo and Jimbo Gulle.