Legality of Inspection of Public Transport Buses at Military Checkpoints

Marcelo Saluday versus People of the Philippines (G.R. No. 215305)

Section 2, Article III of the Constitution guarantees the right of the people against unreasonable searches and seizures. Do inspections of public transport buses at military checkpoints violate this constitutional protection?

Marcelo Saluday versus People of the Philippines (G.R. No. 215305)

On 5 May 2009, Bus No. 66 of Davao Metro Shuttle was flagged down by Task Force Davao of the Philippine Army at a checkpoint near the Tefasco Wharf in Ilang, Davao City. SCAA Junbert M. Buco (Buco), a member of the Task Force, requested all male passengers to disembark from the vehicle while allowing the female passengers to remain inside. He Then boarded the bus to check the presence and intercept the entry of any contraband, illegal firearms or explosives, and suspicious individuals.

SCAA Buco checked all the baggage and personal effects of the passengers, but a small, gray-black pack bag on the seat at the rear of the bus caught his attention. He lifted the bag and found it too heavy for its small size. SCAA Buco then looked at the male passengers lined outside and noticed that a man in a white shirt (later identified as the petitioner) kept peeping through the window towards the direction of the bag. Afterwards, SCAA Buco asked who the owner of the bag was, to which the bus conductor answered that the petitioner and his brother were the ones seated at the back. SCAA Buco then requested the petitioner to board the bus and open the bag. Petitioner obliged and the bag revealed the following contents: (1) an improvised .30 caliber carbine bearing serial number 64702; (2) one magazine with three live ammunitions; (3) one cacao-type hand grenade; and (4) a ten-inch hunting knife. SCAA Buco then asked petitioner to produce proof of his authority to carry firearms and explosives. Unable to show any, petitioner was immediately arrested and informed of his rights by SCAA Buco.

Upon finding of probable cause, the Office of the City Prosecutor of Davao City, charged petitioner with illegal possession of high-powered firearm, ammunition, and explosive. The Trial Court found petitioner guilty beyond reasonable doubt. On appeal, one of the grounds raised petitioner  to challenge his conviction is the supposed illegality of the search.

Constitutional Guarantee Against Unreasonable Search

The constitutional guarantee is not a blanket prohibition. Rather, it operates against “unreasonable” searches and seizures only. Conversely, when a search is “reasonable”, Section 2, Article III of the Constitution does not apply.

Reasonable Search

According to the U.S. Supreme Court In the seminal case of Katz v. United States, what the Fourth Amendment protects are people, not places such that what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his or her own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection in much the same way that what he or she seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.

The prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure ultimately stems from a person’s right to privacy...

Justice John Farlan laid down in his concurring opinion the two-part test that would trigger the application of the Fourth Amendment. First, a person exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy. Second, the expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable (objective).

The prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure ultimately stems from a person’s right to privacy. Hence, only when the State intrudes into a person’s expectation of privacy, which society regards as reasonable, is the Fourth Amendment triggered. Conversely, where a person does not have an expectation of privacy or one’s expectation of privacy  is not reasonable to society, the alleged State intrusion is not “search” within the protection of the Fourth Amendment.

Philippine Jurisprudence

In People v. Johnson, the Court declared airport searches as outside the protection of the search and seizure clause due to the lack of expectation of privacy that society will regard reasonable. Similarly, in Dela Cruz v. People, the Court described seaport searches as reasonable searches on the ground that the safety of the traveling public overrides a person’s right to privacy. In People v. Breis, the Court also justified a bus search owing to the reduced expectation of privacy of the riding public.

Reasonableness of Expectation of Privacy

The reasonableness of a person’s expectation of privacy must be determined on a case-to-case basis since it depends on factual circumstances surrounding the case. Other factors such as customs, physical surroundings and practices of a particular activity may diminish this expectation.

Necessarily, a person’s expectation of privacy is diminished whenever he or she enters private premises that are accessible to the public...

Concededly, a bus, a hotel and beach resort, and a shopping mall are all private property whose owners have every right to exclude anyone from entering. At the same time, however, because these private premises are accessible to the public, the State, much like the owner, can impose non-intrusive security measures and filter those going in. The only difference in the imposition  of security measures by an owner and the State is, the former emanates from the attributes of ownership under Article 429 of the Civil Code, while the latter stems from the exercise of police power for the promotion of public safety. Necessarily, a person’s expectation of privacy is diminished whenever he or she enters private premises that are accessible to the public.

Public Transport Bus Inspection

The bus inspection conducted by Task Force Davao at a military checkpoint constitutes a reasonable search. Bus No. 66 of Davao Metro Shuttle was a vehicle of public transportation where passengers have a reduced expectation of privacy. Further, SCAA Buco merely lifted petitioner’s bag. This visual and minimally intrusive inspection was even less than the standard x-ray and physical inspections done at the airport and seaport terminals where passengers may further be required to open their bags and luggages. Considering the reasonableness of the bus search, Section 2, Article III of the Constitution finds no application, thereby, precluding the necessity of the warrant.