The Supreme Court (SC) has reminded the Philippine National Police (PNP) anew to comply with rules on warrantless arrests, particularly those involving drug suspects.
The court made the reiteration after it acquitted a drug suspect, finding that his warrantless arrest and search were “unreasonable and unlawful” because these were done at a checkpoint and not during the commission of a crime.
In an 11-page decision penned by Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe, the court’s First Division granted the appeal of accused Gerrjan Manago to reverse and set aside the May 20, 2013 decision and Nov. 6, 2013 resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA).
The appeals court, in the 2013 decision, affirmed the March 23, 2009 ruling of the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City, Branch 58, finding Manago guilty beyond reasonable doubt of possession of illegal drugs in violation of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Acts of 2002.
“In fine, Manago’s warrantless arrest, and the search incidental thereto, including that of his moving vehicle were all unreasonable and unlawful. In consequence, the shabu seized from him is rendered inadmissible in evidence pursuant to the exclusionary rule under Section 3 (2), Article III of the 1987 Constitution. Since the confiscated shabu is the very corpus delicti of the crime charged, Manago must necessarily be acquitted and exonerated from criminal liability,” the high tribunal ruled.
The Supreme Court, however, said one of the recognized exceptions to the need for a warrant before a search is a “search incidental to a lawful arrest.” The law however requires that there first be a lawful arrest before a search can be made, and “the process cannot be reversed.”
Under Section 5, Rule 113 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, the three instances when warrantless arrests may be lawfully made are: (a) an arrest of a suspect in flagrante delicto (“in the very act of”); (b) an arrest of a suspect where, based on personal knowledge of the arresting officer, there is probable cause that the suspect was the perpetrator of a crime that had just been committed; and (c) an arrest of a prisoner who has escaped from custody serving final judgment or temporarily confined during the pendency of his case or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another.
The court stressed that in warrantless arrests made pursuant to Section 5(b), “it is essential that the element of personal knowledge must be coupled with the element of immediacy; otherwise, the arrest may be nullified, and resultantly, the items yielded through the search incidental thereto will be rendered inadmissible in consonance with the exclusionary rule of the 1987 Constitution.”
The high tribunal noted that while the element of personal knowledge under Section 5(b) was present, the police authorities opted to conduct a hot-pursuit operation.
“In view of the finding that there was no lawful arrest in this case, the CA likewise erred in ruling that the incidental search on Manago’s vehicle and body was valid. In fact, the said search was made even before he was arrested and thus, violated the cardinal rule on searches incidental to lawful arrests that there first be a lawful arrest before a search can be made,” the court said.
The court underscored that “routine inspections do not give police officers carte blanche discretion to conduct warrantless searches in the absence of probable cause.”
Records showed that in the evening of March 15, 2007, PO3 Antonio Din of the PNP Mobile Patrol Group witnessed a robbery while he was waiting for his turn to have a haircut at Jonas Borces Beauty Parlor.
After his brief shootout with the armed robbers, the latter fled using a motorcycle and a red Toyota Corolla. After an investigation and verification by police authorities, they found out that the armed robbers were staying in Barangay Del Rio Pit-os; and traced the getaways vehicles to Manago.
The next day, March 16, 2007, the police put up a checkpoint in Sitio Panagdait where the red Toyota Corolla being driven by Manago passed by, and was intercepted by the police officers. The police then ordered Manago to disembark, and from there, proceeded to search the vehicle and the body of Manago, which yielded the plastic sachet containing shabu. Manago was then arrested.
In this case, the police officers had already conducted thorough investigation and verification which yielded, among others, the identities of the robbery suspects, the place where they resided, and the ownership of the getaway vehicles used in the robbery.
These pieces of information were enough for the police officers to secure warrants against the robbery suspects, the high court said.
Moreover, there was no longer a circumstance that would have justified the setting up a checkpoint for the purpose of searching Manago’s vehicle.
The checkpoint was arranged for the arrest of Manago, who was already identified as the culprit behind the robbery incident. Thus the checkpoint was used as a subterfuge to capture the suspect, and cannot be considered a routine search.
In 2009, Manago was found by the Cebu City court guilty beyond reasonable doubt of possession of 0.3852 grams of shabu. The lower court sentenced him to 12 to 15 years in prison, and asked him to pay a fine of P300,000.
The case was elevated to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed Manago’s conviction, prompting the latter to bring the matter to the Supreme Court.