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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Checkpoint protocol

Why do the law enforcers manning checkpoints always ask “Puede nato abrihan ang glove compartment?” or “Abrihan nako ang purtahan ha?” Are they just being overly polite, or is there something to it?

I would say that whoever trained them knew what he was doing because these acts are actually prohibited without the consent of the vehicle’s occupants.

First and foremost, aren’t police or military checkpoints violative of our constitutional right to liberty of travel? Aren’t these checkpoints an unwarranted imposition on our civil liberties and right against unreasonable searches?

It was in the case of Valmonte vs. De Villa (G.R. No. 83988, [May 24, 1990]) where this was well-explained by the Supreme Court, thus:

“No one can be compelled, under our libertarian system, to share with the present government its ideological beliefs and practices, or commend its political, social and economic policies or performance. But, at least, one must concede to it the basic right to defend itself from its enemies and, while in power, to pursue its program of government intended for public welfare; and in the pursuit of those objectives, the government has the equal right, under its police power, to select the reasonable means and methods for best achieving them. The checkpoint is evidently one of such means it has selected.

Admittedly, the routine checkpoint stop does intrude, to a certain extent, on motorist’s right to “free passage without interruption”, but it cannot be denied that, as a rule, it involves only a brief detention of travellers during which the vehicle’s occupants are required to answer a brief question or two. For as long as the vehicle is neither searched nor its occupants subjected to a body search, and the inspection of the vehicle is limited to a visual search, said routine checks cannot be regarded as violative of an individual’s right against unreasonable search.”

This said, what exactly are the dos and don’ts at a police checkpoint?

From the De Villa case and other cases decided by the Supreme Court like the case of Caballes vs. Court of Appeals (G.R. No. 136292, [January 15, 2002]), policemen manning a fixed checkpoint are allowed to do only a routine visual search from outside the vehicle and they can use a flashlight to look into the vehicle.
They are not allowed to open car doors or a car’s trunk nor should they open bags or even reach into a vehicle to remove any kind of covering to see what is under it. The occupants should not be made to alight from the vehicle and cannot be subjected to a physical or body search.

In order to legally do a more extensive search, the law enforcers must have probable cause to believe that the occupant is a law offender or that there is some kind of instrument or evidence pertaining to a crime in the vehicle to be searched. This, however, is not just something that the enforcer can conjure up out of thin air but must be based on reasonable grounds.

For example, the Supreme Court has validated such searches when the smell of marijuana was emanating from the vehicle, when there was a prior report of a crime and the reported description matched either the vehicle or the occupant or where the occupant of the vehicle was acting suspiciously.

An example of suspicious behavior is when the driver sped away in an attempt to evade a checkpoint (Surban v. People, G.R. No. 238018, June 18, 2018) while another one was when the three men on a motorcycle were making nervous gestures while passing around the backpack they had with them like a hot potato as the police were asking them questions. It can also be a combination of things like this.

“Mindanao is under martial law, so the police and the military can do what they want” Hmmmm, WRONG! Section 18 of Article VII of the 1987 Constitution, the very provision on martial law and its extent specifically provides that “A state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution”. Thus, the Bill of Rights, among others, continues to be in full effect even under martial law.

Nonetheless, even with the full effect of basic rights and regardless of whether or not the law enforcers have probable cause, a more extensive or even invasive search will be valid if the occupants of the vehicle will consent to it. So, when the law enforcers manning the checkpoints ask for permission to open car doors, the glove compartment or the trunk, doing so will be entirely legal and valid if the occupants consent. Some people have gotten into a lot of trouble by just nodding away when asked for consent and then being shocked when the policemen find contraband in the glove compartment.

I remember the story of a friend who borrowed his girlfriend’s car to go to the gym. He left his gun in the car’s glove compartment and forgot about it when he returned the car. The following day, his girlfriend went out of the city and passed through a checkpoint. When asked to open the glove box, she merrily complied and got the shock of her life when she, and the policeman, saw the shiny Colt 1911 .45 caliber pistol inside. Needless to say, she is no longer my friend’s girlfriend.

Of course, the story is different when we are not talking about checkpoints on a public road but about entry into private establishments such as malls, hotels, churches, cinemas and the like because these places have all the right to refuse entry to anyone who does not want to comply with their security requirements. So, if you do not want your backpacks searched, your butt and pockets patted down, or if you have some kind of strange aversion to being asked to take off your sunglasses, then don’t go into these places.

This is why I did not argue with the security guard at a popular mall when he told me that I could not bring my mini poodle into the mall unless she is in a carrying case or a stroller. They were probably afraid that she was a security threat. So, I just smiled, thanked him for the information and went away to buy Chewie a stroller.

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