Unverified tips alone don’t justify warrantless, intrusive search of moving vehicles

The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that the police cannot conduct a warrantless "intrusive" search of a moving vehicle on the sole basis of an unverified tip from an anonymous informant. Read more: SC: Unverified tips alone don’t justify warrantless, ‘intrusive’ search of moving vehicles. Published August 18, 2020 5:00pm. Updated August 18, 2020 6:31pm. By NICOLE-ANNE C. LAGRIMAS, GMA News. https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/751862/sc-unverified-tips-alone-don-t-justify-warrantless-intrusive-search-of-moving-vehicles/story.

Voting 11-3, the court on June 16 acquitted and ordered the release of Jerry Sapla a.k.a. Eric Salibad, who had been convicted by a trial court on charges that he transported marijuana through a passenger jeepney in 2014. He was arrested at a checkpoint that police officers had set up after they received an anonymous tip that a man in a striped shirt carrying a blue sack would be bringing marijuana from Kalinga to Isabela onboard a jeepney.

Four bricks of suspected dried marijuana leaves were found in the blue sack. The case reached the SC when Sapla appealed after his conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The main issue was whether the police officers who apprehended  Sapla conducted a valid search of a moving vehicle. Both the trial court and the CA considered it valid, but the SC ruled otherwise. For one, the SC said, the target of the search was Sapla himself, not the jeepney he boarded. Even if it could be considered a search of a moving vehicle, the court said such an "intrusive" search without a warrant must be based on probable cause—and probable cause cannot be based solely on an unverified anonymous tip. "The Court has already held with unequivocal clarity that in situations involving warrantless searches and seizures, 'law enforcers cannot act solely on the basis of confidential or tipped information,'" the tribunal said.

"'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 added, citing a 2017 ruling. The court said allowing intrusive warrantless searches—ones that "go beyond a visual search"—of moving vehicles based entirely on anonymous tips would set "an extremely dangerous and perilous precedent." In such a case, the court said anyone could send fabricated information to police to harass other people, or unscrupulous officers could justify infiltrating citizens' vehicles or houses by claiming, even falsely, that they received intelligence. "Simply stated, the citizen's sanctified and heavily-protected right against unreasonable search and seizure will be at the mercy of phony tips," the court said. "The right against unreasonable searches and seizures will be rendered hollow and meaningless. The Court cannot sanction such erosion of the Bill of Rights," it said. The ruling was written by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa. Associate Justices Rosmari Carandang, Amy Lazaro-Javier, and Mario Lopez dissented.

The ruling also makes a reference to the administration's "war on drugs."

The court through Caguioa said it recognizes the need for an "aggressive" stance against illegal drugs, but said this cannot disregard basic constitutional rights.

"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 ruling states.

"The Bill of Rights should never be sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Otherwise, the malevolent mantle of the rule of men dislodges the rule of law," it adds.

“In simple terms, 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. 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.”

The cases challenging the Duterte administration's anti-illegal drug campaign are still pending before the tribunal.

While he said the ruling is "very nuanced," human rights lawyer Edre Olalia welcomed it for its "unequivocal boldness in indicting abuse of power dressing up the demagogic narrative in the 'drug war.'"

"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," said Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers. Read more: SC: Unverified tips alone don’t justify warrantless, ‘intrusive’ search of moving vehicles. Published August 18, 2020 5:00pm. Updated August 18, 2020 6:31pm. By NICOLE-ANNE C. LAGRIMAS, GMA News. https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/751862/sc-unverified-tips-alone-don-t-justify-warrantless-intrusive-search-of-moving-vehicles/story.

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