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Search of a moving vehicle

Two police officers were on routine patrol in Laguna when they noticed a passenger
jeepney unusually covered with kakawati leaves. Concerned that this jeepney could be
carrying smuggled goods, they flagged down the vehicle and noticed the driver was pale
and nervous. He did not answer when asked what was in the vehicle so the officers
checked the jeepney and discovered 700 kilograms of aluminum conductor wires owned by
National Power Corporation.

Both the trial court and Court of Appeals found the driver guilty of theft beyond reasonable
doubt despite the warrantless search. It cited the search of a moving vehicle exception in
valid warrantless searches as its basis. On appeal, the Supreme Court (SC), found the
exception to be inapplicable to the situation and the driver was acquitted.
The SC first explained the necessity of the moving vehicle exception and the limitations of
this type of search –

[t]he rules governing search and seizure have over the years been steadily liberalized
whenever a moving vehicle is the object of the search on the basis of practicality . . . 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. Probable cause must still be present to
conduct the warrantless search.

The SC reiterated that military or police checkpoints are not illegal per se and is a valid form
of a search of moving vehicles as long as it is warranted by the exigencies of public order
and conducted in the least intrusive way. For a routine checkpoint inspection, the Court
gave the necessary parameters –

Ads byThe search 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.
The police officers violated the limitations set by the Court on a valid search of a moving
vehicle. Instead of merely conducting a visual inspection, they reached inside the vehicle,
lifted the kakawati leaves and looked inside the sacks before they were able to see the
cable wires. The SC ruled that because the search was done in violation of the rules on a
valid search and seizure, the cable wires could not be used as evidence in the trial.

Authorities may conduct an extensive search of a vehicle only if the “officers conducting the
search have reasonable or probable cause to believe, before the search, that either the
motorist is a law-offender or they will find the instrumentality or evidence pertaining to a
crime in the vehicle to be searched” such as when they receive confidential reports from a
reliable source or smell marijuana in the vehicle (Caballes v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No.
136292, 15 January 2002, J. Puno).