Fruit of a poisonous tree

By Atty. Rolex T. Suplico


The case of People of the Philippines versus Gerrjan Manago Y Acut (G. R. 212340, Aug. 17, 2016), penned by Justice Perlas-Bernable for the Supreme Court’s First Division, gives us insights on checkpoints and searches of moving vehicles, a familiar occurrence nowadays. This case happened in Cebu, but it could happen anywhere in the country.

At around 9:30 p.m. on Mar. 15, 2007 and while PO3 Din was waiting for his turn to get a haircut, 2 men entered the parlor and declared a hold-up. Din identified himself as a police officer and traded gunshots with the robbers, who then fled on a motorcycle and a red Toyota Corolla. “Through an investigation and verification made by police officers x x x, they were able to: (a) find out that the armed robbers were staying in Barangay Del Rio Pit-os; and (b) trace the getaway vehicles to Manago. The next day, or on March 16, 2007, the police officers set up a checkpoint x x x where, at around 9:30 in the evening, the red Toyota Corolla being driven by Manago passed by and was intercepted x x x. The police officers then ordered Manago to disembarked the car, and from there, proceeded to search the vehicle and the body of Manago, which search yielded (a) plastic sachet containing shabu. Thereupon, they effected Manago’s arrest.”  

On April 10, 2007, an Information was filed before the Regional Trial Court, charging Gerrjan Manago with possession of shabu, defined and penalized under Sec. 11, Art. II of Republic Act No. 9165, otherwise known as the “Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.” He was arraigned, and trial proceeded. In due time, a decision was rendered, finding him guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the possession of shabu. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision in toto. After his motion for reconsideration was denied, he filed an ordinary appeal with the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted the appeal, reversed and set aside the CA’s resolution and acquitted Manago.

Citing Sec. 2, Art. III of the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court stated that a search and seizure must be carried out through or on the strength of a judicial warrant predicated upon the existence of probable cause, absent which such search and seizure becomes ‘unreasonable’ x x x.” x x x, Section 3(2), Article III of the 1987 Constitution provides that evidence obtained and confiscated on the occasion on such unreasonable searches and seizures are deemed tainted and should be excluded for being the proverbial fruit of a poisonous tree. In other words, evidence obtained from unreasonable searches and seizures shall be inadmissible in evidence for any purpose in any proceeding. One of the recognized exceptions to the need of a warrant before a search may be effected is a search incidental to a lawful arrest. In this instance, the law requires that there first be a lawful arrest before a search can be made – the process cannot be reversed.”

The Court then quoted Sect. 5, Rule 113 of the Revised Rules on Criminal Procedure. It enumerated the 3 instances when warrantless arrest may be lawfully effected. “These are: (a) an arrest of a suspect in flagrante delicto; (b) an arrest of a suspect where, based on personal knowledge of the arresting officer, there is probable cause that said suspect was the perpetrator of a crime which had just been committed; and (c) an arrest of a prisoner who has just escaped from custody serving final judgment or temporarily confined during the pendency of his case or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another.”

Thereafter, Court explained that, “In warrantless arrest made pursuant to Section 5(b), it is essential that the element of personal knowledge must be coupled with the element of immediacy; otherwise, the arrest may be nullified, x x x.” The reason for the “immediacy”, it stated, is “as the time gap from the commission of the crime to the arrest widens, the pieces of information gathered are prone to become contaminated and subjected to external factors, interpretations and hearsay.”

The Court then concluded “that while the element of personal knowledge under Section 5(b) above was present – given that PO3 Din actually saw the March 15, 2007 robbery incident and even engaged the robbers in a shootout – the required element of immediacy was not met. This is because, at the time the police officers effected the warrantless arrest upon Manago’s person, investigation and verification proceedings were already conducted, which consequently yielded sufficient information on the suspects of the March 15, 2007 robbery incident. As the Court sees it, the information the police officers had gathered therefrom would have been enough for them to secure the necessary warrants against the suspects. However, they opted to conduct a ‘hot pursuit’ operation which – considering the lack of immediacy – unfortunately faulted to meet the legal requirements therefore. Thus, there being no valid warrantless arrest under the ‘hot pursuit’ doctrine, the CA erred in ruling that Manago was lawfully arrested.”

The Court further stated that the Court of Appeals “likewise erred in ruling that the incidental search on Manago’s vehicle and body was valid. In fact, the said search was made even before he was arrested and thus, violated the cardinal rule on searches incidental to lawful arrests that there first be a lawful arrest before a search can be made. For another, the Court finds the RTCs ruling that the police officers conducted a lawful warrantless search of a moving vehicle on Manago’s red Toyota Corolla untenable.”

The Court noted, The rules governing search and seizure have over the years been steadily liberalized whenever a moving vehicle is the object of the search on the basis of practicality. x x x. We might add that a warrantless search of a moving vehicle is justified on the ground that it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which a warrant must be sought. x x x. A variant of searching vehicles without a warrant may entail the setup of military or police checkpoints – as in this case – which, based on jurisprudence, are not illegal per se for as long as its necessity is justified by the exigencies of public order and conducted in a way least intrusive to motorist. Case law further states that routine inspections in checkpoints are not as violative of an individual’s right against unreasonable searches, and thus, permissible, if limited to the following: (a) where the officer merely draws aside the curtain of a vacant vehicle which is parked on the public fair grounds; (b) simply looks into a vehicle; (c) flashes a light therein without opening the car’s doors; (d) where the occupants are not subjected to a physical or body search; (e) where the inspection of the vehicles is limited to a visual search or visual inspection; and (e) where the routine check is conducted in a fixed area.”

The Court added “routine inspections do not give police officers carte blanche discretion to conduct warrantless searches in the absence of probable cause. When a vehicle is stopped and subjected to an extensive search – as opposed to a mere routine inspection – such a warrantless search has been held to be valid only as long as the police officers conducting the search have reasonable or probable cause to believe before the search that they will find the instrumentality or evidence pertaining to a crime, in the vehicle to be searched.”

The Court stated that “x x x, these pieces of information are already enough for the police officers to secure the necessary warrants to accost the robbery suspects. Consequently, there was no longer any exigent circumstance that would have justified the necessity of setting up the checkpoint in this case for the purpose of searching the subject vehicle. In addition, it is well to point out that the checkpoint was arranged for the targeted arrest of Manago, who was already identified as the culprit of the robbery incident. In this regard, it cannot, therefore, be said that the checkpoint was meant to conduct a routinary and indiscriminate search of moving vehicles. Rather, it was used as a subterfuge to put into force the capture of the fleeing suspect. Unfortunately, this setup cannot take the place of – nor skirt the legal requirement of – procuring a valid search/arrest warrant given the circumstances of this case. Hence, the search conducted on the red Toyota Corolla and on the person of the driver, Manago, was unlawful.”

The Court then concluded that, “Manago’s warrantless arrest, and the search incidental thereto, including that of his moving vehicle, were all unreasonable and unlawful. In consequence, the shabu seized from him is rendered inadmissible in evidence pursuant to the exclusionary rule under Section 3(2), Article III of the 1987 Constitution. Since the confiscated shabu is the very corpus delicti of the crime charged, Manago must necesarily be acquitted and exonerated from criminal liability.”