Philippine judiciary

Batangas court voids search warrant, frees red-tagged sari-sari store owner

Lian Buan
Batangas court voids search warrant, frees red-tagged sari-sari store owner

FREED. Lamberto Asinas is cleared and freed by a Nasugbu court.

Photo courtesy of Public Interest Law Center

Lamberto Asinas was detained for a year after a supposed neighbor accused him of keeping illegal firearms and explosives. The 'neighbor,' it turns out, has no record of living in his area.

Citing inadmissible evidence, a Batangas court ordered the release of a sari-sari store owner who had been detained for a year over allegations that he was a high-ranking communist offical.

In an order dated May 6 but released to the media on Wednesday, May 19, Judge Wilhelmina Go-Santiago of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Nasugbu, Batangas, Branch 14 , quashed the search warrant of another co-equal court to clear and free Lamberto Asinas.

“Search warrant is ordered quashed, all the pieces of evidence obtained by virtue thereof are declared inadmissible in evidence and the above-captioned cases are dismissed,” said the order.

“The jail warden of the Batangas Provincial Jail is directed to immediately release Lamberto Asinas from detention,” the order added.

Asinas was arrested on April 17 in Barangay Bunducan, Nasugbu, on the strength of a search warrant issued by Judge Cynthia Marino-Ricablanca of RTC Branch 27 of Sta. Cruz, Laguna. The search yielded illegal firearms and explosives, which authorized a warrantless arrest on the principle of caught in the act.

A year later, the Nasugbu court under Santiago voided Sta. Cruz’s warrant because of major inconsistencies in the testimonies of the cops who applied for the search.

Santiago also gave weight to a barangay certification secured by Asinas’ lawyers, saying that the police’s informant – Jojo Castillo, an alleged neighbor – did not have any record of living in the area.

“Without this crucial fact that Castillo lives near the house of Asinas, the whole case of the applicant for the issuance of the search warrant would have no factual basis to stand on,” said Santiago.

Red-tagged

Santiago’s order continues the streak of trial court judges voiding search warrants of co-equal judges, an action so peculiar it became a topic at the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) interviews for chief justice about what conflicting lower court decisions would mean for judicial stability.

This streak involved cases of activists who were searched and arrested, but were later on cleared and freed by the courts that eventually handled the main cases for illegal possession of firearms and explosives. 

This pattern has prompted activists to urge the Supreme Court to review the rules on search warrants, alleging that it’s been weaponized against progressives.

The military and police had alleged that Asinas is the regional intelligence officer of the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), but a statement from the NPA Eduardo Dagli Command refuted this and said Asinas is a “common farmer.”

The Public Interest Law Center (PILC), Asinas’ lawyers, said in a statement on Wednesday that he is “a long-time local who regularly mans their small sari-sari store.”

The PILC said Asinas still feared persecution because he had already been red-tagged.

“Because the military had exceedingly gloated over his arrest, he fears future persecution and harm notwithstanding his clear legal victory. Red-tagged individuals have little or no recourse even after charges are dismissed,” said the PILC.

The PILC added, “The military and police are not compelled nor have they volunteered to retract their malicious statements and, in most cases, have refused to acknowledge the errors in their ways.”

Thorough examination

Without directly referring to Ricablanca, Santiago said “the judge must not simply rehash the contents of the affidavit but must make his own inquiry on the intent and justification of the application.”

The rules on search warrants say the issuing judge must make a thorough examination of the application, but in Asinas’ case, Judge Santiago said the applicants did not have personal knowledge and their testimonies were inconsistent.

It helped that PILC also secured an affidavit from Asinas’ neighbors denying that he ever threatened them, as alleged by the policemen warrant applicants.

This is not the first time that a search warrant issued by Ricablanca was quashed. In July 2020, a Balayan, Batangas court quashed Ricablanca’s search warrant and freed Doroteo Bautista, a farmer from Calaca, Batangas. The search on Bautista also yielded firearms and explosives.

The nine activists who were killed during police searches in Calabarzon were also allegedly found with firearms and explosives. Their cases remained unresolved. The Supreme Court has distanced the judges who issued the search warrants from the issue.

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police in Southern Tagalog are losing credibility with these kinds of operations, as the victims and residents resolutely, bravely push back. As long as our clients stand strong, the PILC will stand for them in court just as well,” said the PILC. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.