Your invisible shield

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2020 - 12:00am

From the moment you wake up and throughout the day, you are clothed in an invisible barrier woven by the law. The hardiest part of this barrier is formed by inherent rights that you possess simply from being a human being, rights that are acknowledged by the State as part of our social contract with it. This barrier is composed of our rights against the State itself, our safeguard against the powerful institution that we created to protect ourselves – but which in the process has become the repository of a vast potential to harm. The textual embodiment of this shield is the Bill of Rights, found in Article III of our Constitution.

True, this invisible shield is an intangible one. It cannot stop a fist, much less a bullet. What it can do is provide an imposing deterrent to authorities tempted to circumvent your rights – that should they do so, the full power of the State will be brought to bear against them, even if they themselves are agents of the State.

In the Bill of Rights, the most primordial guarantee is that which safeguards our physical safety from potential abuses by the State:

Section 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Every Filipino is meant to be safe from abuses by the State. The State is not allowed to take away your life, your freedom or that which you own, except for very good reasons related to the protection of the public good and within the limits provided by law. As a general rule one can refuse a police officer’s search of his/her person, home or car unless there is a warrant issued by a judge, who has been convinced by law enforcement officers that there are facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable mind to believe that a crime was committed and that the items connected to the crime are with the person or in the place to be searched.

On its face this right seems absolute. In an ideal world, this would mean our people would be free of the fears associated with the most oppressive of tyrannies.

Yet this is not an ideal world, and not every agent of the State acts with an understanding of their true duty to the people. Even for those who are in good faith, the protective barriers raised by the Bill of Rights may seem like red tape at best, and a hinderance to justice at worst. Time and time again, short cuts have been made in the name of the greater good, and with these have come justifications for expediency.

Some of these justifications have been built originally into the legal system itself, while others have been added with time, seen as necessary compromises. Various types of warrantless searches and arrests are authorized – not as a way of saying the State may act abusively or unreasonably, but to better protect the interest of the public in special situations where exigent circumstances exist.

Even the most justified of exceptions, however, cannot help but weaken the perception of the general rule. Where one exception has been made, why not another? There is a constant pushing against the boundaries of what is allowed. After all, a barrier with an abundance of holes is far from a deterrent.

The entity at the forefront of ensuring that the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights remain strong is the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court rules on a case, it applies general law to a specific situation, providing a guide for future interpretation in identical or similar circumstances. This is one reason why, as much as possible, the Court attempts to be consistent with its interpretation whenever the facts of a case are substantially the same with another that has been previously decided. But the Court may have the opportunity to interpret the same law multiple times and it is inevitable that as the years pass, with a multitude of decisions will come some level of variation, at least in how an interpretation is communicated.

This variation can lead to lines of decisions which are divergent and even conflicting,and which can create confusion regarding crucial rights and principles. When this happens, the Court may use a new case to clarify the doctrine on the matter. The recent decision in People of the Philippines vs Jerry Sapla y Guerrero (G.R. No. 244045, June 16, 2020) is one such case.

In the Sapla case, the Court, sitting en banc, ruled that an anonymous and unverified tip does not justify an intrusive warrantless search, and thus is a violation of a person’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures in the Bill of Rights.

In this case, an anonymous text to a police hotline was the sole basis by which the police set up a checkpoint and conducted a subsequent search of a public utility vehicle. The police had earlier received a call about a man who would be transporting marijuana, and the text message described the subject male as well as the license plate number of the jeepney. The search at the checkpoint resulted in the arrest of the accused for possession of marijuana leaves found in a bag that the police claimed to belong to the accused, even if the accused denied the same.

In the course of granting the appeal of the accused, the Court had the opportunity to highlight the primacy of every Filipino’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures and clarify the specific and limited cases where a warrantless search is allowed. In my next column, I will go into the Court’s reasoning, and how it reconciled this case with prior decisions.

For now, suffice it to say, that in our courts, the shield provided by the Bill of Rights remains strong.

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