SC rejects warrantless drug searches in moving vehicles

The Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs by ruling that the campaign against narcotics cannot be won by subverting the people’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. In an 11-3 decision dated June 16 but released only on Tuesday, the Supreme Court invalidated warrantless police searches and seizures of illegal drugs in vehicles based solely on an unverified anonymous tip. Read more: Follow us: @inquirerdotnet on Twitter | inquirerdotnet on Facebook.

Settling the issue “once and for all,” the court said any tip from an anonymous source that was not verified by the police could not be a legal basis for an intrusive search of a vehicle for illegal drugs.

The tribunal upheld the accused’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and said confiscated drugs could not be used as evidence in court “if the process of gathering evidence was tainted by a violation of the accused’s rights.”

“When the Constitution is disregarded, the battle 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,” said the court in its most scathing commentary against the anti-illegal drugs campaign. Read more:

“The state’s steadfastness in eliminating the drug menace must be equally matched by its determination to uphold and defend the Constitution. This 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,” added the court in a decision authored by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.

Using the case to lay a jurisprudence, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the immediate release of Jerry Sapla who was arrested in January 2014 in Tabuk City, Kalinga province, for possession of four bricks of marijuana.

Sapla was convicted by the Regional Trial Court Branch (RTC) 25 of Tabuk in January 2017. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision in April 2018.

Sapla was a jeepney passenger who was arrested at a police checkpoint. The Regional Public Safety Battalion in Tabuk claimed it received an anonymous phone call that a man in a certain attire would be transporting marijuana in a blue sack from Kalinga to Isabela province.

In his defense, Sapla denied that he carried any baggage when he boarded the jeepney to go to Roxas, Isabela. He said the police officers found the marijuana in a sack among the baggage of the passengers and chose to arrest him from among three male passengers who wore fatigue pants.

The Supreme Court overturned the decisions of the RTC and the appeals court, which considered his arrest the result of a valid warrantless search of a moving vehicle.

But the Supreme Court said the target of the search was a person whose clothes fit the description given in the anonymous tip.

It stressed that police officers were limited to routine inspection of a vehicle and needed reasonable or probable cause before they could conduct an intrusive search of a vehicle without warrant.

“Does the mere reception of a text message from an anonymous person suffice to create probable cause that enables the authorities to conduct an extensive and intrusive search without a search warrant? The answer is a resounding no,” it said, adding that a tip is considered hearsay “no matter how reliable it may be.”

“While the court recognizes the necessity of adopting a decisive stance against the scourge of illegal drugs, the eradication of illegal drugs in our society cannot be achieved by subverting the people’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Supreme Court said.

“The Constitution does not allow the end to justify the means. Otherwise, in eradicating one societal disease, a deadlier and more sinister one is cultivated — the trampling of the people’s fundamental, inalienable rights,” it added.

Edre Olalia, president of the human rights lawyers’ group National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, welcomed the Supreme Court decision, which could be used against state abuse in fighting not just crime but also terrorism.

The issue that was presented in the case was “very nuanced” and “qualifiers for the ruling” must be considered, he said.

“But in 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,’” Olalia said.

The 11 justices who joined the majority decision included Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta and the two other most senior members: Associate Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen.

The majority also included Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo, Jose Reyes Jr., Ramon Hernando, Henri Inting, Rodil Zalameda, Edgardo delos Santos and Samuel Gaerlan. Read more: