“The multiple deaths resulting from the execution of search warrants, the claims that the police planted evidence in the course of the search, and the perceived misuse of court processes to attack activists and dissenters all demand comprehensive reforms in the issuance of search warrants and their implementation.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – At least more than a hundred lawyers are formally urging the Supreme Court to institute reforms in the issuance of search warrants through a letter on Monday, March 22. The lawyers expressed their concern that court processes is being used as a false legal cover to attack activists and dissenters.
The letter came after nine activists were killed in a simultaneous joint military and police operations in Laguna, Rizal, Cavite and Batangas last March 7, known as Bloody Sunday. The operations used search warrants issued by Manila Regional Trial Court judges Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa and Jason Zapanta.
The lawyers proposed that the SC review the procedure in the issuance of search warrants to ensure that this is not done perfunctorily, “but only after rigorous scrutiny by the courts, in accordance with constitutional standards and procedural safeguards, and bearing in mind the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”
Initiated by human rights lawyers Neri Colmenares and Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), the letter has gathered signatures from high profile lawyers including former Senators Wigberto Tanada and Rene Saguisag, former Vice President Jejomar Binay, Deans Pacifico Agabin of the University of the Philippines College of Law, Tony La Viña of Ateneo School of Government, Integrated Bar of the Philippines’ (IBP) incoming president Burt Estrada, former SC spokesperson Theodore Te, and former Congressman Erin Tañada, among many others.
As of this writing, a total of 139 signatories that include lawyers, law deans and legal luminaries signed to support the proposed reform.
“We come to this Honorable Court to ask that it take immediate, concrete, and responsive action on these matters. We urge the Court to immediately investigate this deadly trend that has not only resulted in the death and incarceration of many peaceful citizens, but has also impacted on the public’s confidence in the integrity, prudence, and independence of judges,” the letter read.
The lawyers are proposing the following:
1) Review of A.M. No. 03-8-02-SC authorizing Executive Judges of Manila and Quezon City or their Vice Executive Judges to issue, in special criminal cases, “remote or roving” search warrants that can be served anywhere in the country.
2) Applications for search warrants in the special criminal cases stated in A.M. No. 03-8-02-SC must be allowed to be filed only with the nearest court outside the locality where the place to be searched is located but within the judicial region of that place.
3) Requirement that applicants for search warrants must certify that they have not previously applied for a warrant in another court. If the same application for search warrant has been previously denied by another court, the police will be required to attach the records and order of the previous court.
4) Limitation on the number of search warrant applications to be heard by a judge and prohibiting wholesale applications of search warrants that will not afford judges the opportunity to conduct a thorough scrutiny of the application and conduct searching questions on the applicants and their witnesses.
5) Requirement that searches should be undertaken during office hours and not in the middle of the night and the deployment of body cameras or video recording devices to record the entire police operation, from initial entry to its conclusion.
6) Providing a procedure for the person/s subject of the search and by independent witnesses to confirm the veracity of any video recording. This could also include requiring a designated prosecutor, subject to security protocols, to accompany and witness the whole operation from the start to its conclusion.
7) Prohibition against any restraint, relocation, or arrest of the subject of the search or other persons unless they are engaged in the actual commission of an offense or there are compelling reasons to use reasonable force in implementing the search.
8) Mandating that in search warrants that resulted in death during the implementation should be subject to automatic review by the Supreme Court. The Court may consider including or designating the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Commission on Human Rights, among others, to be part of the review process.
The numerous incidents of using search warrants
The lawyers also noted that the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) missed to include hundreds of search warrants previously issued by Quezon City judges that also led to deaths and arrests of many activists.
They cited the killing of 14 farmers in Canlaon City, Manjuyod and Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental on March 30, 2019 where search warrants issued by Cebu Regional Trial Court Judge Soliver Peras were used by the police. The application for the said search warrants were made upon the instruction of the Philippine National Police Central Visayas then headed by Gen. Debold Sinas.
They also cited search warrants issued by Quezon City RTC Executive Judge Cecilyn Villavert which was served outside Quezon City such as in Negros Occidental, Bacolod City and in Manila where Reina Mae Nasino, Ram Carlo Bautista of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Manila chapter and Alma Moran, member of the secretariat of Manila Workers Unity, were arrested.
The killing of nine Tumanduks in Panay also happened when the police executed search warrants in the residence of the subjects, the lawyers added.
Many of those arrested in the execution of the search warrants also decried of planting of evidence during the early morning raids of their offices or residences.
There were reports that subjects were forced to lie or were manhandled as they were dragged out of their homes, leaving enforcers inside the house for not less than an hour, and only after would officials from the barangay would come to witness the search.
On March 12, the Office of the Court Administrator reported that there are 63 applications for search warrants filed simultaneously in the Manila RTC on March 1. The report was released after the SC ordered the OCA to investigate the issuance of the search warrants involved in the Bloody Sunday incident.
“The multiple deaths resulting from the execution of search warrants, the claims that the police planted evidence in the course of the search, and the perceived misuse of court processes to attack activists and dissenters all demand comprehensive reforms in the issuance of search warrants and their implementation,” the lawyers said.
They added, “The review of existing rules issued by the Supreme Court, with the participation of human rights groups, the IBP, and other stakeholders, is an important step towards preventing any abuse of court processes and the ‘weaponization’ of the law.”