Philippine judiciary

After 2 years, another search from warrant factory voided

Lian Buan
After 2 years, another search from warrant factory voided

Alexander and Winona Birondo inside their holding cell at Camp Karingal in Quezon City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

The story of the police discovering a witness who saw guns and a grenade in the activists' apartment is somehow incredulous, says the court

Two years after a bizarre search operation, a court in Quezon City (QC) voided the warrants issued by the so-called search warrant factory of Judge Cecilyn Burgos Villavert against two peace talks consultants of the National Democratic Front (NDF).

Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 77 Judge Ferdinand Baylon quashed Villavert’s July 2019 warrants against couple Alexander and Winona Birondo.

“The search warrants are hereby quashed and declared invalid. The evidence recovered pursuant to these search warrants are deemed inadmissible as evidence,” Baylon said in an order dated August 13.

This is the latest in a string of legal victories for activists, mostly of search warrants being quashed. Activists are usually arrested during search operations, where police find illegal guns and grenades, a non-bailable offense.

Activists have slammed this as a police modus. The Supreme Court has responded by scrapping the power of QC and Manila judges to issue search warrants outside their judicial regions, and requiring policemen to wear body cameras when executing searches.

The last searches to be voided in favor of activists were the cases of former Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) chairman and New People’s Army (NPA) commander Rodolfo Salas, and United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Pastor Dan Balucio.

Bizarre

Quezon City police arrested the Birondo couple on July 23, 2019. There were no standing warrants against the couple, whose cases have already been dismissed.

The QC police said they were supposed to arrest a certain Rolando Caballero, alias Jet, but the couple obstructed the operation. Policemen arrested the couple for obstruction of justice.

While the Birondos were in Camp Karingal, the QC police headquarters, the police applied for, were granted, and then executed, the search warrant on the same day, on July 23, according to the couple’s lawyer, Kristina Conti of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC).

It was during that search later that day that the guns and grenade were supposedly found, giving the police basis to detain the couple.

“They implemented the warrant in the evening of July 23, 2019, while the Birondos were in custody at Camp Caringal and clearly not in physical possession of any firearm and grenade,” the PILC said.

In August 2019, QC prosecutors ordered the release of the Birondos pending further investigation. Prosecutors later charged them with the non-bailable offense of illegal possession of firearms and explosives, and have been in jail ever since.

‘Incredulous’

Judge Baylon said it was somehow incredulous how the police found their witness to apply for the search warrant, the cleaner of the apartment complex where the Birondos were staying in July 2019.

According to the cleaner’s sworn statements, guns and a grenade were seen in several areas of the apartment every time he would clean it.

But during trial, the cleaner said he was not sure if what he saw was indeed a grenade. Also during trial, the cleaner said he was not sure who was cleaning the gun when he saw it, even saying that “he thought the said person was a police officer.”

The cleaner said he saw these guns and grenade on July 21 and 22, the day before the arrest.

“One could easily see the probability that the firearm and ammunition which he allegedly saw could have been owned by any of the unidentified persons he saw inside the unit on July 21 and 22 and were brought there by these persons,” said the court.

The court also noted the “sudden appearance” of the cleaner. It turned out the cleaner started the job in July, the same month of the arrest. Nobody even knows who hired or paid the cleaner, the court said.

Upon questioning by the court, the cleaner said that on July 23, he was five floors away from where the police arrested the Birondos. “How was the witness seen by the police?” the court asked.

“This was not explained, thus, leaving a semblance of incredulity to the happenstance that the witness just happened to be seen by the police at an opportune moment when they needed someone to provide information regarding that unit, not to mention the serendipitous fact that the witness just happened to start his stint as a garbage collector of the apartment units in the same month the accused signed their lease of contracts,” said the court.

“As the evils in the administration of justice are sought to be averted, we in PILC and those in other law groups will continue to engage and defend in the courts. The struggle is far from over,” said PILC.

Rights group Karapatan had earlier called for accountability of the judges who issue the search warrants, especially since some of these warrants led to deaths of activists, including the nine killed in the Bloody Sunday Calabarzon incident.

“The Supreme Court [must] take steps to investigate members of the judiciary who have been involved in the issuances of such questionable search warrants, including Quezon City Regional Trial Court Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert and Manila Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Jose Lorenzo dela Rosa,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay. – 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.