LAW EACH WEEK
Checkpoints and unreasonable search and seizure
by Atty. Karissa Tolentino

Protected in our Constitution is the inviolable right of the people to be secure in their persons and properties against unreasonable searches and seizures, as defined under Section 2, Article III thereof.

Before a law enforcer can validly search a person or his property, he must have a search warrant. Such prohibition against warrantless searches and seizures without a search warrant is not absolute but admits of certain exceptions. One exception is the search of a moving vehicle.

Warrantless search of a moving vehicle is justified on the ground that it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant is sought.1

Searches without warrant of automobiles is also allowed for the purpose of preventing violations of smuggling or immigration laws, provided such searches are made at borders or ‘constructive borders’ like checkpoints.2

However, this does not give the police officers unlimited discretion to conduct indiscriminate searches without warrants in the absence of probable cause. Probable cause signifies a reasonable ground of suspicion supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves to warrant a cautious man’s belief that the person accused is guilty of the offense with which he is charged; or the existence of such facts and circumstances which could lead a reasonably discreet and prudent man to believe that an offense has been committed and that the items, articles or objects sought in connection with said offense or subject to seizure and destruction by law is in the place to be searched.3

Military or police checkpoints are not illegal per se as long as the vehicle is neither searched nor its occupants subjected to body search, and the inspection of the vehicle is merely visual.4

In the case of United States vs. Pierre (932 F. 2d 377) the Court held that the physical intrusion of a part of the body of an agent into the vehicle (stuck his head through the driver’s side window) goes beyond the area protected by the constitution.

On the other hand, when a vehicle is stopped and subjected to an extensive search, such a warrantless search would be constitutionally permissible only if the officers conducting the search have reasonable or probable cause to believe, before the search, that either the motorist is a lawoffender or they will find the instrumentality or evidence pertaining to a crime in the vehicle to be searched.5

In other words, in the absence of probable cause, the authorities:

1. cannot enter even a part of his body into the vehicle

2. cannot compel the passengers to step out of the car;

3. cannot conduct bodily searches; and

4. cannot compel the motorist to open the trunk or glove compartment of the car, or any package contained therein.

The Court has held in a case that at the cost of occasional inconvenience, discomfort and even irritation to the citizen, the checkpoints when conducted within reasonable limits, are part of the price we pay for an orderly society and a peaceful community.

6 As long as proper procedures are done by the authorities conducting the checkpoints and within the reasonable limits discussed above, checkpoints are legal.

(Footnotes)

1 Asuncion vs. CA, et al., 302 SCRA 490 (1999).

2 Almedia-Sanchez vs. United States, 37 L.ed. 2d 596.

3 People vs. Valdez, 304 SCRA 140 (1999).

4 Aniag, Jr. vs. Commission on Elections, 237 SCRA 424, 433, October 7, 1994.

5 Obra, et al. vs. CA, et al., 317 SCRA 594 (1999) 6 Valmonte vs. de Villa, 178 SCRA 211 (1989).


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