SC reminds PNP anew: Follow rules on warrantless arrest

MANILA — The Supreme Court (SC) reminded anew the Philippine National Police to comply with rules on warrantless arrest, particularly on drug suspects.

The Court made the reiteration after it acquitted a drug convict after it found that his warrantless arrest and the search incidental to his arrest were “unreasonable and unlawful.”

In the 11-page decision penned by Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, the Court’s First Division granted the appeal of accused-appellant Gerrjan Manago to reverse and set aside the May 20, 2013 decision and Nov. 6, 2013 resolution of the Court of Appeals.

The CA in the said decision affirmed the March 23, 2009 decision of the Regional Trial Court of Cebu City, Branch 58 finding Manago guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Section 11, Article II of RA 9165, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Acts of 2002.

“In fine, 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 necessarily be acquitted and exonerated from criminal liability,” the Court held.

The Court, however, said that one of the recognized exceptions to the needs of a warrant before a search may be effect 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 and “the process cannot be reversed.”

Under Section 5, Rule 113 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure, the three instances when warrantless arrests may be lawfully effected are: (a) an arrest of a suspect in flagrante delicto (in the very act of); (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 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.

The Court stressed that in warrantless arrests made pursuant to Sec. 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, and resultantly, the items yielded through the search incidental thereto will be rendered inadmissible in consonance with the exclusionary rule of the 1987 Constitution.”

The Court held that while the element of personal knowledge under Sec. 5(b) was present, the police authorities, opting to conduct a “hot pursuit operation which – considering the lack of immediacy – unfortunately failed to meet the legal requirements therefor. Thus, there being no valid warrantless arrest under the “hot pursuit” doctrine, the CA erred in ruling that Manago was lawfully arrested.

“In view of the finding that there was no lawful arrest in this case, the CA 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,” the Court held.

The Court underscored that “routine inspections do not give police officers carte blanche discretion to conduct warrantless searches in the absence of probable cause.”

Records reveal that in the evening of March 15, 2007, PO3 Antonio Din of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Mobile Patrol Group personally witnessed a robbery incident while he was waiting for his turn to have a haircut at Jonas Borces Beauty Parlor. After his brief shootout with the armed robbers, the latter fled using a motorcycle and a red Toyota Corolla. Through an investigation and verification by police authorities, they found out that the armed robbers were staying in Barangay Del Rio Pit-os; and traced the getaways vehicles to Manago. The next day, March 16, 2007, the police set up a checkpoint in Sitio Panagdait where the red Toyota Corolla being driven by Manago passed by and was intercepted by the police officers. The police then ordered Manago to disembark the car, and from there, proceeded to search the vehicle and the body of Manago, which yielded the plastic sachet containing shabu. Thereupon, they effected Manago’s arrest.

In this case, the police officers had already conducted a thorough investigation and verification proceedings, which yielded, among others: the identities of the robbery suspects; the place where they reside; and the ownership of the getaway vehicles used in the robbery. These pieces of information were already enough for said 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 a checkpoint for the purpose of searching the subject vehicle. Also, 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.

In 2009, Manago was found by the Cebu City RTC, Branch 58 guilty beyond reasonable doubt of possession of 0.3852 grams of shabu and sentenced him to suffer the penalty of imprisonment for a period of 12 years and one day, as minimum, to 15 years, as maximum, and to pay a PHP300,000 fine.

The case was elevated to the Court of Appeals which affirmed Manago’s conviction, prompting the latter to further elevate the matter to the High Court. Christopher Lloyd Caliwan/PNA/