Stop and frisk doctrine

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Four police officers in uniform were on foot patrol in Quiapo due to bomb threats that have been occurring in the area for the last seven days. They found two groups of Muslim-looking men standing on opposite sides of the Quezon Boulevard corner. According to the police officers, these men were acting suspiciously and their eyes were moving very fast. After some thirty minutes of observing the two groups, they decided to approach one of the groups. Upon seeing the policemen, the groups fled in all directions.

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Fortunately, one of the men was apprehended by a police officer. Without a warrant, the police officer searched the man and found a “fragmentation grenade tucked inside his front waist line.” The man was immediately arrested and charged with illegal possession of explosives under Sec. 3, Presidential Decree No. 1866. The trial court found the man guilty despite the man’s argument that the search and arrest was in violation of his constitutional rights as it was conducted without a warrant and that the seizure of the hand grenade could not be used as evidence against him. The court ruled that the seizure of the grenade was valid despite the warrantless search based on the “stop and frisk” exception. This was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled that the “stop and frisk” exception was inapplicable. Citing Terry v. Ohio, it clarified that the parameters of an allowable “stop and frisk” situation is limited to a “protective search of outer clothing for weapons” –

[w]here a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where in the course of investigating this behavior he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. Such a search is a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court also noted that while probable cause is not required to conduct a “stop and frisk,” mere suspicion or a hunch will not validate this type of search. A genuine reason based on the police officer’s experience and surrounding conditions must exist to warrant the belief that the person detained has weapons concealed on him. In the present case, the Court observed that there was no ground, probable or otherwise, to believe that the accused was armed with a deadly weapon or was behaving in a manner that could elicit any suspicion. Neither was the prosecution able to prove that the accused was a member of the group responsible for the bomb threats.

Lastly, it explained the necessity of the “stop and frisk” exception –

A “stop-and-frisk” serves a two-fold interest: (1) the general interest of effective crime prevention and detection, which underlies the recognition that a police officer may, under appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, approach a person for purposes of investigating possible criminal behavior even without probable cause; and (2) the more pressing interest of safety and self-preservation which permit the police officer to take steps to assure himself that the person with whom he deals is not armed with a deadly weapon that could unexpectedly and fatally be used against the police officer (Malacat v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 123595, 12 December 1997, J. Davide, Jr.).

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