What instances when a warrantless search is valid?

Article III, Section 2 of the Philippine Constitution provides:

            Section 2. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Law and jurisprudence have laid down the instances when a warrantless search is valid. These are:

  1. Warrantless search incidental to a lawful arrest recognized under Section 12 [now Section 13], Rule 126 of the Rules of Court and by prevailing jurisprudence;
  2.  Seizure of evidence in “plain view,” the elements of which are:

            (a) a prior valid intrusion based on the valid warrantless arrest in which the police are legally present in the pursuit of their official duties;

            (b) the evidence was inadvertently discovered by the police who had the right to be where they are;

            (c) the evidence must be immediately apparent[;] and;

            (d) “plain view” justified mere seizure of evidence without further search.

  1. Search of a moving vehicle. Highly regulated by the government, the vehicle’s inherent mobility reduces expectation of privacy especially when its transit in public thoroughfares furnishes a highly reasonable suspicion amounting to probable cause that the occupant committed a criminal activity;
  2. Consented warrantless search;
  3. Customs search;
  4. Stop and Frisk; and
  5. Exigent and Emergency Circumstances.[14]

          Both the trial court and the CA anchored their respective decisions on the fact that the search was conducted on a moving vehicle to justify the validity of the search.

Indeed, the search of a moving vehicle is one of the doctrinally accepted exceptions to the Constitutional mandate that no search or seizure shall be made except by virtue of a warrant issued by a judge after personally determining the existence of probable cause.[15]

In People v. Bagista,[16] the Court said:

The constitutional proscription against warrantless searches and seizures admits of certain exceptions. Aside from a search incident to a lawful arrest, a warrantless search had been upheld in cases of a moving vehicle, and the seizure of evidence in plain view.

With regard to the search of moving vehicles, this had been justified on the ground that the mobility of motor vehicles makes it possible for the vehicle to be searched to move out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

This in no way, however, gives the police officers unlimited discretion to conduct warrantless searches of automobiles in the absence of probable cause. When a vehicle is stopped and subjected to an extensive search, such a warrantless search has been held to be valid only as long as the officers conducting the search have reasonable or probable cause to believe before the search that they will find the instrumentality or evidence pertaining to a crime, in the vehicle to be searched.

It is well to remember that in the instances we have recognized as exceptions to the requirement of a judicial warrant, it is necessary that the officer effecting the arrest or seizure must have been impelled to do so because of probable cause. The essential requisite of probable cause must be satisfied before a warrantless search and seizure can be lawfully conducted.[17] Without probable cause, the articles seized cannot be admitted in evidence against the person arrested.[18]

Probable cause is defined as a reasonable ground of suspicion supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves to induce a cautious man to believe that the person accused is guilty of the offense charged. It refers to the existence of such facts and circumstances that can 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 are in the place to be searched.[19]

The grounds of suspicion are reasonable when, in the absence of actual belief of the arresting officers, the suspicion that the person to be arrested is probably guilty of committing the offense is based on actual facts, i.e., supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves to create the probable cause of guilt of the person to be arrested. A reasonable suspicion therefore must be founded on probable cause, coupled with good faith on the part of the peace officers making the arrest.[20]

Over the years, the rules governing search and seizure have been steadily liberalized whenever a moving vehicle is the object of the search on the basis of practicality. This is so considering that before a warrant could be obtained, the place, things and persons to be searched must be described to the satisfaction of the issuing judge – a requirement which borders on the impossible in instances where moving vehicle is used to transport contraband from one place to another with impunity.[21]

This exception is easy to understand.  A search warrant may readily be obtained when the search is made in a store, dwelling house or other immobile structure.  But it is impracticable to obtain a warrant when the search is conducted on a mobile ship, on an aircraft, or in other motor vehicles since they can quickly be moved out of the locality or jurisdiction where the warrant must be sought.[22]

Given the discussion above, it is readily apparent that the search in this case is valid. The vehicle that carried the contraband or prohibited drugs was about to leave. PO2 Pallayoc had to make a quick decision and act fast. It would be unreasonable to require him to procure a warrant before conducting the search under the circumstances. Time was of the essence in this case. The searching officer had no time to obtain a warrant. Indeed, he only had enough time to board the vehicle before the same left for its destination.

It is well to remember that on October 26, 2005, the night before appellant’s arrest, the police received information that marijuana was to be transported from Barangay Balbalayang, and had set up a checkpoint around the area to intercept the suspects. At dawn of October 27, 2005, PO2 Pallayoc met the secret agent from the Barangay Intelligence Network, who informed him that a baggage of marijuana was loaded on a passenger jeepney about to leave for the poblacion. Thus, PO2 Pallayoc had probable cause to search the packages allegedly containing illegal drugs.

This Court has also, time and again, upheld as valid a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest. Thus, Section 13, Rule 126 of the Rules of Court provides:

            SEC. 13. Search incident to lawful arrest.—A person lawfully arrested may be searched for dangerous weapons or anything which may have been used or constitute proof in the commission of an offense without a search warrant.[23]

For this rule to apply, it is imperative that there be a prior valid arrest.   Although, generally, a warrant is necessary for a valid arrest, the Rules of Court provides the exceptions therefor, to wit:

            SEC. 5. Arrest without warrant; when lawful.—A peace officer or a private person may, without a warrant, arrest a person:

(a)  When, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or is attempting to commit an offense;

(b)  When an offense has just been committed and he has probable cause to believe based on personal knowledge of facts or circumstances that the person to be arrested has committed it; and

(c)  When the person to be arrested is a prisoner who has escaped from a penal establishment or place where he is serving final judgment or is temporarily confined while his case is pending, or has escaped while being transferred from one confinement to another.

In cases falling under paragraphs (a) and (b) above, the person arrested without a warrant shall be forthwith delivered to the nearest police station or jail and shall be proceeded against in accordance with section 7 of Rule 112.[24]

Be that as it may, we have held that a search substantially contemporaneous with an arrest can precede the arrest if the police has probable cause to make the arrest at the outset of the search.[25]

Given that the search was valid, appellant’s arrest based on that search is also valid.


About Erineus

Born on December 28, 1965, Surallah, South Cotabato, Southern Mindanao, Philippines.
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