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A self-defeating, self-destructive war

/ 05:02 AM September 12, 2020

You’ve angered someone. In retaliation, an allegation is fabricated against you: You are a drug peddler. This “tip,” along with your address and plate number, is shared with the Philippine National Police hotline. Suddenly, agents come knocking at your door, wanting to search your home without a search warrant. Or while on the road, your car gets flagged by police officers who want to search the inside of your car. They insist: Kung wala kang tinatago, bakit ka matatakot? Overcome by fear, you have no choice but to yield.

This is not a fictional scenario. The government’s war on drugs, characterized by warrantless searches and seizures, has been waged on the back of unreliable tips provided by “confidential informants.” In fact, under existing PNP operational guidelines, agents are explicitly allowed to conduct warrantless searches on the basis of tips even if they lack personal knowledge of the commission of a crime or the existence of contraband in the place searched.

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In assessing the constitutionality of this practice, the Supreme Court has handed down inconsistent rulings over the years. But finally, in what has been widely described by various sectors as a landmark decision for civil liberties, the Supreme Court definitively settled the issue in its June 2020 decision in People v. Sapla.

Speaking through Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, the Court ruled that warrantless searches may only be conducted in the narrowest of circumstances, such as when an agent conducting a vehicular search personally observed some indication of criminality. The police cannot rely solely on tipped information passed on by another as it is purely hearsay. The right against unreasonable searches is a sacred constitutional right that deserves staunch protection, lest the rule of men overtake the rule of law.

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In the wake of this landmark decision, some have questioned the practicality of the ruling. In holding that constitutional rights should not be violated in the crusade against illegal drugs, was the Court being too naive and idealistic? Can criminality be realistically suppressed by playing by the book? Will limiting the police’s power to conduct excessive warrantless searches hinder the legitimate pursuit of fighting drugs? One of the dissenting opinions even went so far as to accuse the majority decision of emboldening criminals.

First and foremost, disregarding constitutional rights is completely antithetical to law enforcement. One cannot “enforce the law” and at the same time trample on the Constitution—the fundamental law of the land.

Moreover, choosing between effective law enforcement and safeguarding constitutional rights is a false dilemma. We need not pick one over the other. In fact, protecting fundamental rights and effective law enforcement go hand in hand. As explained by the Court, if the police are allowed to wantonly conduct warrantless searches on the sole basis of tips, unscrupulous persons can effortlessly manipulate the police machinery for their own criminal schemes by simply submitting false tips. Also, crooked agents can easily claim that intelligence was received, even if purely concocted, in order to infiltrate a citizen’s vehicle or residence for some illicit purpose. The police itself becomes a vehicle for criminality.

Hence, beyond simply viewing the Court’s landmark decision as a victory for civil liberties, it should also be viewed as a win for law enforcement. In truth, the ruling seeks to preserve the integrity of the police and restore the people’s faith in law enforcement by shielding the institution from the devious influence of unreliable tips. Without the people’s trust and confidence, any anti-criminality campaign is doomed to fail.

To be sure, the multitude of cases in our jurisprudence upholding the conviction of drug pushers apprehended through legitimate buy-busts only goes to show that effective police operations can be pursued without cutting corners. The government has enormous power and resources at its disposal to do so. In achieving the desired results, fundamental rights need not be sacrificed.

Otherwise, as articulated by the Court, the battle against illegal drugs ceases to be a war on drugs. It becomes a war on the people—a self-defeating, self-destructive war that cultivates criminality instead of stifling it.

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Leonardo M. Camacho is a lawyer and an incoming Master of Public Policy student at the University of Cambridge and a faculty member of the Commercial Law Department, De La Salle University. Before entering Cambridge, he was a court attorney of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. His views are solely his own.

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TAGS: government abuse of power, human rights, war on drugs
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