People vs. Sapla

posted July 31, 2021 at 12:05 am
by  Tony La Viña
"It settles once and for all the legality of a warrantless intrusive search of a vehicle based on an anonymous tip."

 

Five years into President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, few reports of police abuses have been investigated, not to mention that only a handful of these abusive law enforcers have been brought to justice despite reports by human rights advocates of extrajudicial killings and thousands of victims being arrested or killed under suspicious circumstances.  

The case of People v. Sapla, decided last June 16, 2020, is one case that settles once and for all the legality of a warrantless intrusive search of a vehicle based on an anonymous tip. In his ponencia, Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa emphasized that “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. 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 case originated when Sapla, a jeepney passenger, was arrested at a police checkpoint in Tabuk City, Kalinga province, for possession of four bricks of marijuana. The Regional Public Safety Battalion, acting on an anonymous phone call that a man in acertain attire would be transporting marijuana in a blue sack from Kalinga to Isabela province, caused the setting up of a police check point which netted the accused on board who fitted the description given by the anonymous tipster.

Although convicted by the Regional Trial Court and the Court of Appeals which considered his arrest the result of a valid warrantless search of a moving vehicle, the Supreme Court overturned Jerry Sapla’s conviction and ordered his immediate release. In doing so, the Court 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.

On the issue of whether or not the police officers may justify in this case the search as a search of a moving vehicle, the Court also ruled in the negative, stating that this case does not fall under search of a moving vehicle because the target of the search was not the jeepney boarded by Sapla but rather the target was the person of Sapla. Based on the testimony of the police officers, their actual target was the person fitting the description provided by the tip which corresponded to Sapla and not the vehicle.

Can police officers justify the search as consented search? The Court once again ruled in the negative for the reason that based on the testimony of the police officers, Sapla hesitated when he was requested to open the blue sack. This only means that he did not give his consent and that his compliance was vitiated by the presence of the police.

In deciding to acquit the accused, the Supreme Court emphasized the need to adhere to strict standards set by the Constitution otherwise “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.”


In the opening lines of People vs. Sapla, Justice Caguioa uses strong words:  “Therefore, 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. 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.”

As a parting word, the good Justice affirms that: “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.”

The new rules requiring body cameras and prohibiting courts to become warrant factories are consistent with the thinking reflected in this historic decision, one of the best human rights jurisprudence ironically coming out from the High Court during a time when the respect for human rights is in great danger.

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Topics: Tony La Viña , President Rodrigo Duterte , war on drugs , extrajudicial killings , People v. Sapla
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