By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – For the third time, another local court invalidated the search warrants used to arrest human rights defenders.
In a decision dated Feb. 18, Judge Ana Celeste P. Bernad of Bacolod City Regional Trial Court Branch 42 granted the motions to quash search warrants and suppress evidence filed by Karina Mae De La Cerna, Cherryl Catalogo, and John Milton Lozande.
The accused were all arrested in Bacolod City on October 31, 2019 by virtue of search warrants issued by Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of RTC Quezon City. They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
In its decision, the court declared that the case “constitutes an infringement of the constitutional requirement that a search warrant shall particularly describe the place to be searched as stated under Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Constitution.”
The court further resolved that in view of the violation of the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, any evidence obtained such as the firearms and other materials seized from the premises are thus inadmissible.
The court said that the search warrants failed to describe the place with particularity. While the search warrants identify the place as No. 222 Ilang Ilang Street, Brgy. Bata, Bacolod City, said address, however, is made of three structures that can be seen inside the compound containing a lot area of 375 square meters, the court noted.
Lawyers of the accused from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL)-Panay said the decision is “a victory for the rule of law and the cause of justice.”
“This latest decision of the court which overturned the presumption that the search warrant issued by Judge Burgos-Villavert satisfied the constitutional requirement of definiteness, has increasingly disproved the competence and integrity of the said judge as well as other similar judges who have arbitrarily issued search warrants against known activist and members of caused-oriented organizations,” NUPL-Panay said in a statement.
Just last week, a local court in Mandaluyong City affirmed the quashal of search warrant also issued by Villavert, and ordered the immediate release from detention of journalist Lady Ann Salem and union organizer Rodrigo Esparago.
Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio of the Mandaluyong Regional Trial Court Branch 209 declared the search warrant void for lack of probable cause, citing the numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of the alleged civilian informant and the police officer.
“As held by the Supreme Court, conflicting statements and declarations of law enforces/witnesses destroy their credibility. Moreover, the evidentiary presumption that official duties have been regularly performed can be overcome by a showing that law enforcers involved deviated from the standard conduct of official duty as provided for in the law,” the court’s decision read.
Salem and Esparago maintained that the evidence against them were all planted.
Lawyers of Salem from the Public Interest Law Center expressed hope that the other victims of the trumped-up charges resulting from the implementation of the void search warrant be also released from detention.
For Kristina Conti of PILC, the case of Salem “is instructive and helpful for other politically motivated charges,” adding that Judge Quisumbing-Ignacio has put prime importance to constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures.
Five union organizers were arrested on December 10, 2021 based on the same search warrants issued by Villavert. They remain in jail over similar charges.
Last year, a local court in Balayan also granted the motion to quash the search warrants issued by an executive judge in Laguna RTC against six farmers arrested in Calaca, Batangas.
Like the case in Bacolod City, Branch 9 of the RTC Balayan said in its decision that the search warrants are invalid as they failed to particularly state the address of the houses of the persons to be searched.
The court also declared as inadmissible the supposed evidence gathered by the police during their search, which included grenades and other explosive devices.
The farmers who were arrested on May 10, 2020 were ordered released on July 27 of the same year.
The NUPL has asked the Supreme Court to review its administrative order that allows executive and vice executive judges to issue search warrants, which leads to the arrest and even extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders and activists.