By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
RTC Search Warrants Invalidated
posted 25-Mar-2016  ·  
6,589 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

In a Decision dated March 2, 2016 by the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R.SP No. 141519, the appellate court annulled search warrants issued on October 26, 2014 by Judge Lelu P. Contreras, Executive Judge of the RTC, Virac, Catanduanes. Said judge ordered the search in houses situated in Lanao, Virac, Catanduanes, on the belief that the occupants have in their possession an undetermined volume stock of illegal drugs. The search warrants merely stated that the place to be searched is the named persons’ respective house located at Sitio Pulang Lupa, Lanao, Virac, Catanduanes. The apprehending police officers implemented the Search Warrant at past 2 p.m. of the same day, which led to the arrest of John Tabor, Judith Dela Cruz, Richard Butial, Mikko Santiago, and Ulpiano Lumbao, as well as the confiscation of several items allegedly found inside their respective houses.

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After a complaint was filed at the Provincial Prosecution Office of Virac, Catanduanes, criminal cases for Violation of Sections 6, 11, and 12 of Republic Act No. 9165 and Violation of Section 28 paragraph (i) of Republic Act No. 10591 were separately filed against the said persons at the RTC. Aggrieved, the accused filed a motion for production of records of examinations of applicant and witnesses in connection with the Application for Search Warrant, praying that they be furnished copies of all the records of examination of the deponent and witnesses, such as sworn statements, depositions, and transcript of the questions and answers. The court denied said motion including a subsequent motion for reconsideration. Thereafter, the accused filed a motion to quash search warrant and/or suppress evidence. In the Joint Orders dated April 13, 2015 and June 2, 2015 penned by Judge Contreras, the latter denied said motion and also a motion for reconsideration which was filed thereafter.

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The accused then elevated the matter to the Court of Appeals by way of a Petition for Certiorari, assailing the aforementioned Joint Orders. In sustaining the stand of the accused, the appellate court pointed out that of all the rights of a citizen, few are of greater importance or more essential to a person's peace and happiness than the right of personal security, and that involves the exemption of his or her private affairs, books, and papers from inspection and scrutiny of others. While the power to search and seize is necessary to the public welfare, still it must be exercised without transgressing the constitutional rights of citizens, for the enforcement of no statute is of sufficient importance to justify indifference to the basic principles of government. Zeal in the pursuit of criminals cannot ennoble the use of arbitrary methods that the Constitution itself abhors.

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The CA ruled that the failure to comply with the requirement that the examination must be under oath and reduced into writing in the form of searching questions and answers renders the search warrant invalid. Consequently, where entry into the premises was gained by virtue of a void search warrant, prohibited articles seized in the course of the search are inadmissible. No matter how incriminating the articles taken from the petitioners may he, their seizure cannot validate an invalid warrant.

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It appears that there are at least seven (7) other houses inside the compound owned and occupied by different families, all of whom are not subject of the warrant. The RTC stated in the assailed Joint Order that the target was only one (1) house, and yet it used the word "respective" in the warrant, which makes it confusing. The appellate court thus ruled that the subject Search Warrant failed to particularly describe the place sought to be searched as mandated by the Constitution. It said that to be valid, a search warrant should "point out the place to the exclusion of all others" and "lead the officers unerring to it". Thus, if the search warrant makes it possible for the police officers to search other occupants in the compound, as what happened in this case, then the warrant is defective. Here, there is simply no way to distinctively identify and isolate, from the document alone, petitioners' houses from the other residences in the compound, or from other houses in Sitio Pulang Lupa for that matter. To confirm this obscurity, the apprehending team entered the house of other persons who are not subjects of the warrant, and even asked them where the houses of some of the petitioners are. This is proof that the place stated in the Search Warrant was not described with sufficient particularity. The RTC cannot justify the validity of the search through the "confirmatory endeavor" undertaken by the apprehending police officers because the Search Warrant should have already been sufficient in itself.

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Also, the CA pointed out that the search should be witnessed by "two witnesses of sufficient age and discretion residing in the same locality" only in the absence of either the lawful occupant of the premises or any member of his family. Hence, the insinuation that the apprehending police officers were accompanied by barangay officials and representatives from the media is irrelevant if the petitioners themselves did not accompany the search teams from room to room.  All told, the CA found that the Honorable Judge Contreras committed a reversible error in denying petitioners' Motion to Quash Search Warrant as its issuance and implementation are marred by several defects, any one of which is sufficient to invalidate the search.

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The appellate court reiterated that the requisites for the issuance of a search warrant must be followed strictly. Liberal construction should be given in favor of the individual to prevent stealthy encroachment upon, or gradual depreciation of the rights secured by the Constitution. Finally, the CA recalled the time honored rule that, no matter how humble, a man's home is his castle. Be it a palace or a hovel, only the law, by authoritative process, bids open the closed door of a home. The proceedings upon search warrants must be absolutely legal, for there is not a description of process known to the law, the execution of which is more distressing to the citizen. There is none which excites such intense feeling in consequence of its humiliating and degrading effect. While the objective to curb the proliferation of drugs is laudable, constitutional rights cannot be compromised and the safeguards instituted to protect the same should always be strictly observed. 

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