The malevolent mantle

    637

    ‘…on August 17, 2020, under the pen of Associate Justice Caguioa, the Supreme Court decision drew a definitive line with the fundamental rights of Filipinos, and in sum told the executive that they cannot cross that line in enforcing the law.’

    SOMETIMES, a Supreme Court decision is just that: a Supreme Court decision. It decides on legal controversies and interprets the laws of the Philippines. Once the controversy is decided, the decision forms part of the laws of the land.

    Sometimes, a Supreme Court decision is just a Supreme Court decision. But on August 17, 2020, the decision promulgated by the Supreme Court in the case of People of the Philippines vs. Jerry Guerrero Sapla was more than that.

    The facts are straightforward. On January 10, 2014, the Regional Public Safety Battalion (RPSB) in Tabuk City, Kalinga received an anonymous phone call, claiming that a man would be transporting marijuana from Kalinga to Isabela. The RPSB would later receive an anonymous text containing a description of the person, who turned out to be accused-appellant Sapla, as well as the plate number of the public jeep Sapla was riding. The RPSB set up a checkpoint, and not long thereafter flagged down the jeepney. Armed with the anonymous tip, the RPSB identified Sapla based on the description, and inspected the sack Sapla had with him on the jeep, with Sapla’s consent. Inside, they found four bricks of what would later be confirmed as marijuana. During trial, Sapla merely denied the accusation, claiming the sack did not belong to him. The Regional Trial Court found Sapla guilty, and the Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

    Tasked with deciding Sapla’s appeal, the Supreme Court, speaking through Associate Justice Caguioa, summarized the key issue as: “Stripped to its core, the essential issue in the instant case is whether or not there was a valid search and seizure by the police officers. The answer to this critical question determines whether there is enough evidence to sustain accused-appellant Sapla’s conviction under Section 5 of R.A. 9165.”

    The Supreme Court reversed Sapla’s conviction. Barring any other case being pursued against him, Sapla is now a free man.

    The decision makes a detailed discussion on the history, development, and at times divergence of the case law on warrantless searches and seizures. And from this lengthy discussion the Court reached the conclusion: a targeted search of a single person based solely on an anonymous tip and nothing else is an invalid search, and anything obtained from it cannot be accepted as evidence. In this case, it included the marijuana seized from Sapla. Without the contraband as evidence, the court has no choice but to acquit Sapla.

    This decision easily mirrors the misgivings of civil society against Duterte’s war on drugs.

    Yes, we are all in agreement: illegal drugs are bad, substance abuse is bad, and we do need to pursue suspected pushers and dealers to the fullest extent of the law. But we have to go by the book. We can’t take shortcuts. That is how we lose cases. That is how these accused pushers and dealers go free. And then what? We shortcut even more by killing the suspects? What if we’re wrong and they’re not the ones we should be pursuing?

    Sometimes a Supreme Court decision is just a Supreme Court decision. But on August 17, 2020, under the pen of Associate Justice Caguioa, the Supreme Court decision drew a definitive line with the fundamental rights of Filipinos, and in sum told the executive that they cannot cross that line in enforcing the law.

    “A battle waged against illegal drugs that tramples on the rights of the people is not a war on drugs; it is a war against the people.

    “The Bill of Rights should never be sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Otherwise, the malevolent mantle of the rule of men dislodges the rule of law.”