Guardians of the gates

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Is an anonymous text sufficient basis to provide probable cause to conduct an intrusive search? This is the issue the Supreme Court put to rest in the recent case of People of the Philippines v. Jerry Sapla y Guerrero (G.R. No. 244045, 16 June 2020). Last week I discussed the general rule: that government agents may not conduct a search without a warrant issued by a judge.

In Sapla, the police allegedly received an anonymous tip that a person fitting the accused’s description would be transporting marijuana on board a certain jeepney. According to the police, they set up a checkpoint and flagged down the jeepney. They saw the accused and asked him to open the sack where they found the contraband and they submitted that this was a valid warrantless search.

There are a few situations where a warrantless search is allowed, including, amongst others: (a) search incident to a lawful arrest; (b) when the illegal item is in plain sight; (c) and a search of a moving vehicle. In Sapla, the police tried to justify their actions under the last exception. In resolving the case, the Court held that: (a) it was not actually a search of a moving vehicle; (b) even if it were, police need probable cause to conduct an intrusive warrantless search of a vehicle and (c) an anonymous tip is not enough to provide probable cause.

The Court cited the case of People v. Comprado (G.R. No. 213225, 4 April 2018) to explain the pre-requisites of a search of a moving vehicle. In Comprado, the Court stated that for a search to be classified as such: (a) the target should be the vehicle and (b) the vehicle was intentionally used as a means to transport illegal items. In Comprado, as in Sapla, the target of the police was a person, not a vehicle or its cargo – the person just happened to be a passenger. In both Comprado and Sapla, the search was not considered to be one of a moving vehicle – the checkpoint was set up in Sapla to find a specific person, not a vehicle – thus the moving vehicle exception does not apply.

But the Court went further: even if this was a search of a moving vehicle, it would still be invalid. Why? Warrantless searches involving a vehicle may be classified as either a routine check or an intrusive search. Routine checks, such as those at checkpoints, are allowed for as long as the examination of the vehicle is limited to visual inspection. Any search that goes beyond the visual is considered to be an intrusive search and requires the presence of probable cause. Probable cause for the search of a vehicle requires the existence of facts or circumstances which would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed and that objects (not people) connected with that crime are in the vehicle.

In Sapla, the police clearly went beyond the merely visual – they had the accused open the sack where the marijuana was found. Thus, for their search to be valid and the marijuana admissible as evidence, they must have had probable cause to believe that the marijuana was there. But the only basis they had was the anonymous tip.

According to the Supreme Court, this anonymous tip was not enough.

Unverified information from an anonymous informant, standing alone, cannot suffice as probable cause to conduct a valid warrantless intrusive search of a moving vehicle. In Sapla, the Court discussed the many preceding decisions which held the same. The information that forms the basis of the probable cause, according to these cases, must come from the police officers themselves. This means the police officer must personally observe the facts leading to the suspicion of an illicit act. The police officer cannot merely adopt the suspicion initiated by another person, and neither can only one suspicious circumstance be relied upon to make a search reasonable. The Court cited People v. Cogaed (740 Phil 212 [2014]) which held that “[e]xclusive reliance on information tipped by informants goes against the very nature of probable cause... To maintain otherwise would be to sanction frivolity, opening the floodgates to unfounded searches…”

It’s easy enough to see why. Allowing anonymous tips to be the basis of probable cause for an intrusive search would be the same as completely surrendering any protection against unreasonable searches. The vindictive could set the police against their enemies without consequences, or police could send themselves “anonymous” leads and never need a search warrant again.

This is why the Sapla case is important. The Court makes clear the primacy of the Bill of Rights and the exceptional nature of any warrantless search. The Court also removed any confusion by tackling a seemingly contrary line of jurisprudence concerning tipped information. The Court examined cases where it had, in the past, seemingly allowed tips to be used as a basis of probable cause, and showed that in those cases the searches were actually not based solely on the confidential tip, but on overt acts and other circumstances personally observed by the police that engendered great suspicion.

The Court also took cases that were frequently used to justify the use of tips as probable cause and showed that they did not stand up to scrutiny. In People v. Tampis (455 Phil. 371-385 [2003]) police did not act solely on the tipped information supplied by the informants but after they had personally witnessed the accused packing drugs. The Tampis case also cited People v. Aruta (351 Phil. 868 [1998]) as the basis for a statement that tips could be the basis for probable cause, but a look at Aruta actually shows the opposite, as in that case, the Court held the warrantless search to be unlawful. A similar scrutiny revealed the flawed basis of another case, People vs Maspil (266 Phil. 815 [1990]), which relied on Valmonte v. de Villa (264 Phil. 264 [1990]) – the Valmonte case only held that checkpoints were not illegal per se, and that routine checks – not intrusive searches – were not violative of the right against unreasonable searches.

The Supreme Court could not have been clearer: from here on, the prevailing line of jurisprudence is that unverified, anonymous tips cannot engender probable cause.

Thanks to the Court, the floodgates remain firmly closed.

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