The Court of Appeals (CA) Twelfth Division pointed out police errors in warrants application and implementation as grounds for the dismissal of the petition for certiorari of the Office of Solicitor General (OSG). The OSG cited grave abuse of discretion on the part of Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Judge Branch 209 Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio for quashing the warrants and dismissing the case against Manila Today editor Lady Ann Salem and labor organizer Rodrigo Esparago.

The OSG’s bid to reverse the Mandaluyong court decision was filed in May 2021, right before the Mandaluyong court’s decision lapsed into finality and only two months after Salem and Esparago were released. The OSG, then under Jose Calida, sought to set aside and nullify the decision of the Mandaluyong court that declared the warrants null and void and denied the motion for reconsideration of the Office of the City Prosecutor of Mandaluyong.

The OSG said the Mandaluyong judge acted with grave abuse of discretion when it found the search warrants null and void for being vague and the inconsistent testimonies in the police application of the warrant resulted in her reversal of the probable cause for the search warrants issued by Quezon City Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert.

Salem and Esparago were part of Human Rights Day 7 (HRD7). Police undertook a series of pre-dawn raids in Manila, Quezon City and Mandaluyong on the strength of warrants issued by Villavert on December 10, 2020, arresting six labor union organizers and one journalist, alleging they were part of a gun-running syndicate. The police search in the abodes of the seven were said to produce firearms and explosives, that the seven said were planted by the police.

The CA 12th Division is composed of Associate Justices Nina Antonio-Valenzuela (chairperson), Emily Aliño-Geluz and Jose Lorenzo Dela Rosa. Dela Rosa, known as the Manila executive judge who issued the warrants for the Bloody Sunday raids that was another series of pre-dawn raids against activists that the police said were gun-running groups, penned the decision.

No reasonable particularity of the items to be seized

In its 18-page resolution dated January 27, the CA 12th Division said there was no reasonable particularity of description of the cellphone and laptop to be seized and that the direct relation of these items to the offense for which the warrant was issued was also not mentioned.

It also agreed with the RTC that the police undertook a ‘fishing expedition to seize and confiscate’ any and all cellphones and laptops they saw on the premises. The CA said this is precisely the danger sought to be prevented by the constitutional requirement that the things to be seized must be particularly described.

The CA said that “a search warrant need not describe the items to be seized in minute and precise detail,” but common elements and features of the items shall be inquired upon such as the color, size, shape, material, brand, parts or any and all crucial and decisive description of the object to be captured. The decision noted the RTC’s observation that while the police applicants said they were in close proximity to the respondents, “it is incomprehensible that they could not remember the brands or at least the color of the laptop and the cellphone they had seen up close.” Aside from four .45 caliber pistols and their ammunition and 4 hand grenades, the police also took three laptops of two different brands and five cellphones of five different make and brands.

The CA also mentioned that aside from the number and make of the firearm to be seized, the color of the illegal firearm or any markings or engravings that could describe the object should be inquired. These details were not on the search warrants issued by Villavert.

The police also took other items that were not part of the search warrant, such as hard drives, bags, and IDs. The confiscated items have not been returned to Salem and Esparago, as the CIDG Eastern Department Field Unit refused to return the items despite the dismissal of the case at the RTC and the declaration of these pieces of evidence as inadmissible.

Implementation of warrant not justified

The CA also noted the implementation of the warrant was not justified. It noted that the general rule is to serve the warrant during daytime. The exception to the rule is to serve the warrant at any reasonable hour, but the CA asked issuing judges to seek justification from warrant applicants to rationalize and substantiate the need for their search at night.

The CA pointed out that the police and the witnesses they produced did not refute the statements of Salem and Esparago that they were made to kneel, face the wall with their hands tied at their backs for over an hour before the police said the search is to commence. The CA said that even if Salem and Esparago were inside the house, “it is as if the search was conducted without their presence.”

“This Court stresses that presumption of regularity in the performance of duty cannot overcome the presumption of innocence in favor of the accused,” said the CA.

It concluded on this part that this constitutional guarantee should be upheld by trial courts at the onset of trial so as to avoid tedious trial against an accused.

Reversal of probable cause upheld

The CA also said that the RTC did not err in reversing the finding of probable cause based on false and inconsistent testimonies of the police and their witnesses. The inconsistencies and contradictions in the police testimonies included who encoded or took photos of the firearms given to the police undercover agent and his companion, what type of bag they placed these firearms that they supposedly delivered to three others of the HRD7, to whom and how many people they delivered the firearms they allegedly got from Esparago and Salem and whether they were male or female among others. Due to these inconsistencies found by the Mandaluyong court, the CA agreed and said that probable cause was not sufficiently established.

The CA also stressed the falsity in the police statements found by the RTC. Salem and Esparago proved they only moved to the condominium unit on October 23, 2020, thus the police informant’s statements in the application of the warrant that they met them there in May 2020 and the former delivery guy, a certain Chris, allegedly killed by the group received firearms at the unit from May to October 2020 were impossible, said the CA.

Call to release the rest of HRD7

The Public Interest Law Center (PILC), the legal counsel for Salem, welcomed the favorable decision of the appellate court.

“In an incisive and progressive approach, trial court Judge Monique A. Quisumbing-Ignacio quashed the search warrants for lack of probable cause to issue them in the first place. The CA, in affirming her decision, strengthened the role of a reviewing judge in re-examining the evidence upon the police’s application,” said PILC in a statement.

PILC had asked the trial court to look into the validity of the search warrants: if the police made falsities and errors in the application, and if the issuing judge made the required probing personal examination.

“Our clients lost time, opportunities, and peace of mind with these charges that turned out to be founded on deceit. This case is a classic example of a heavy hand in a colored political context – Salem was a member of the alternative press tagged for being a critic of government – but has also paved the way for the judiciary to showcase its fairness and independence,” PILC added.

PILC noted Judge Quisumbiing-Ignacio’s example among court judges after carefully scrutinizing the law enforcement operations in politically-motivated warrant cases like Salem and Esparago of HRD7.

“We are thankful for other judges of politically-motivated warrants cases for making principled and intelligent stances in favor of the people and their constitutional rights. As trust in law enforcement dips to an all-time low, it is meaningful and comforting to know that the people may still ask for protection and place their hope in the courts and other pillars of the criminal justice system,” PILC said.

Given this favorable decision, PILC noted that the OSG may still choose to file a motion for reconsideration at the CA, but they are hopeful that the CA will stand by its decision.

Last January 20, the CA resolved to deny the OSG’s motion for reconsideration on the quashal of warrants issued also by Villavert but upheld by the original Manila trial court judge in the case against Ram Carlo Bautista, Reina Mae Nasino, and Alma Moran of Tondo 3.

Karapatan NCR welcomed the CA decisions on the case of Salem and Esparago.

PILC and Karapatan NCR called on the release of Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz, Jaymie Gregorio Jr, and Joel Demate of the HRD7, whose arrests were on the basis of the same evidence as Salem and Esparago.


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