Sgt. Victorino Noceja and Pat. Alex de Castro, while on a routine patrol in Barangay Sampalucan, Pagsanjan, spotted a passenger jeep unusually covered with “kakawati” leaves.
Suspecting that the jeep was loaded with smuggled goods, the two police officers flagged down the vehicle. The jeep was driven by appellant. When asked what was loaded on the jeep, he did not answer, and appeared nervous.
With appellant’s consent, the police officers checked the cargo and they discovered bundles of 3.08 mm aluminum/galvanized conductor wires exclusively owned by National Power Corporation (NPC). When asked where the wires came from, appellant answered that they came from Cavinti, a town approximately 8 kilometers away from Sampalucan.
The court a quo rendered judgment finding the accused guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Theft.
The CA affirmed the judgment of conviction.
Petitioner now comes to the Court contending that the flagging down of his vehicle by police officers who were on routine patrol, merely on “suspicion” that “it might contain smuggled goods,” does not constitute probable cause that will justify a warrantless search and seizure.
Whether the evidence taken from the warrantless search is admissible against the appellant.
It is not controverted that the search and seizure conducted by the police officers in the case at bar was not authorized by a search warrant.
A 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 must be sought. 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 near the boundary lines of the State.
The mere mobility of these vehicles, however, does not give the police officers unlimited discretion to conduct indiscriminate searches without warrants if made within the interior of the territory and in the absence of probable cause. Still and all, the important thing is that there was probable cause to conduct the warrantless search, which must still be present in such a case.
Routine inspections are not regarded as violative of an individual’s right against unreasonable search. The search which is normally permissible in this instance is limited to the following instances:
(1) where the officer merely draws aside the curtain of a vacant vehicle which is parked on the public fair grounds; (2) simply looks into a vehicle; (3) flashes a light therein without opening the car’s doors; (4) where the occupants are not subjected to a physical or body search; (5) where the inspection of the vehicles is limited to a visual search or visual inspection; and (6) where the routine check is conducted in a fixed area.
None of the foregoing circumstances is obtaining in the case at bar. The police officers did not merely conduct a visual search or visual inspection of herein petitioner’s vehicle.They had to reach inside the vehicle, lift the kakawati leaves and look inside the sacks before they were able to see the cable wires. It cannot be considered a simple routine check.
The vehicle of the petitioner was flagged down because the police officers who were on routine patrol became suspicious when they saw that the back of the vehicle was covered with kakawati leaves which, according to them, was unusual and uncommon.
We hold that the fact that the vehicle looked suspicious simply because it is not common for such to be covered with kakawati leaves does not constitute “probable cause” as would justify the conduct of a search without a warrant.
Neither can petitioner’s passive submission be construed as an implied acquiescence to the warrantless search.
Casting aside the cable wires as evidence, the remaining evidence on record are insufficient to sustain petitioner’s conviction. His guilt can only be established without violating the constitutional right of the accused against unreasonable search and seizure.
The impugned decision was REVERSED and SET ASIDE, and accused Rudy Caballes was ACQUITTED of the crime charged.