• Search of a moving vehicle

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    Two police officers were on routine patrol in Laguna when they noticed a passenger jeepney unusually covered with kakawati leaves. Concerned that this jeepney could be carrying smuggled goods, they flagged down the vehicle and noticed the driver was pale and nervous. He did not answer when asked what was in the vehicle so the officers checked the jeepney and discovered 700 kilograms of aluminum conductor wires owned by National Power Corporation.

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    Both the trial court and Court of Appeals found the driver guilty of theft beyond reasonable doubt despite the warrantless search. It cited the search of a moving vehicle exception in valid warrantless searches as its basis. On appeal, the Supreme Court (SC), found the exception to be inapplicable to the situation and the driver was acquitted.
    The SC first explained the necessity of the moving vehicle exception and the limitations of this type of search –

    [t]he rules governing search and seizure have over the years been steadily liberalized whenever a moving vehicle is the object of the search on the basis of practicality . . . A warrantless search of a moving vehicle is justified on the ground that it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought. Searches without warrant of automobiles is also allowed for the purpose of preventing violations of smuggling or immigration laws, provided such searches are made at borders or ‘constructive borders’ like checkpoints near the boundary lines of the State.

    The mere mobility of these vehicles, however, does not give the police officers unlimited discretion to conduct indiscriminate searches without warrants if made within the interior of the territory and in the absence of probable cause. Probable cause must still be present to conduct the warrantless search.

    The SC reiterated that military or police checkpoints are not illegal per se and is a valid form of a search of moving vehicles as long as it is warranted by the exigencies of public order and conducted in the least intrusive way. For a routine checkpoint inspection, the Court gave the necessary parameters –

    The search is limited to the following instances: (1) where the officer merely draws aside the curtain of a vacant vehicle which is parked on the public fair grounds; (2) simply looks into a vehicle; (3) flashes a light therein without opening the car’s doors; (4) where the occupants are not subjected to a physical or body search; (5) where the inspection of the vehicles is limited to a visual search or visual inspection; and (6) where the routine check is conducted in a fixed area.

    The police officers violated the limitations set by the Court on a valid search of a moving vehicle. Instead of merely conducting a visual inspection, they reached inside the vehicle, lifted the kakawati leaves and looked inside the sacks before they were able to see the cable wires. The SC ruled that because the search was done in violation of the rules on a valid search and seizure, the cable wires could not be used as evidence in the trial.

    Authorities may conduct an extensive search of a vehicle only if the “officers conducting the search have reasonable or probable cause to believe, before the search, that either the motorist is a law-offender or they will find the instrumentality or evidence pertaining to a crime in the vehicle to be searched” such as when they receive confidential reports from a reliable source or smell marijuana in the vehicle (Caballes v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 136292, 15 January 2002, J. Puno).

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