Mayors need search warrants before seizing ‘evidence’ from suspected illegal mining operations

Published October 3, 2020, 12:22 PM

by Jeffrey Damicog

Mayors should secure search warrants from courts before going to suspected illegal mining operations and seizing any evidence, the Supreme Court (SC) said.

“Section 2, Article III of the Constitution ordains the right of the people against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government,” read the decision, which was penned by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta and made public last Sept. 28, on the petition of former Mayor Delfin Pilapil Jr. of Lagonoy, Camarines Sur.

“To be regarded reasonable, government led search and seizure must generally be sanctioned by judicial warrant in accordance with the requirements prescribed in the aforementioned constitutional provision,” the high court ruled.

With this, the SC denied the petition of Pilapil and upheld the 2016 rulings of the Court of Appeals (CA) which dismissed the charges against Lydia Cu, president of Bicol Chromite and Manganese Corporation (BCMC) for illegal possession of explosives in violation of Republic Act 9516.

The charges were filed before the Camarines Sur Regional Trial Court (RTC), after 1,061 kilos of explosives were seized during the Aug. 24, 2011 inspection that Pilapil led with police and barangay officials on the mining operations of BCMC and Prime Rock.

Pilapil conducted the inspection to ensure that January 31, 2011 cease and desist order (CDO) order issued by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau Region Office 5 (MGB RO5) was being implemented.

“Mayor Pilapil’s zeal to curb illegal mining activities within his municipality is commendable. However, that zeal can never justify taking (a) course of action that is not authorized under the law, much less be an excuse to flout basic constitutional rights of the people,” the SC said.

After he received reports of alleged continued illegal mining activities, the high tribunal pointed out “Mayaor Pilapil could have simply applied for a judicial warrant to search the mining site of BCMC and Prime Rock for the purpose of verifying such report.”

The tribunal disagreed with the argument of Pilapil that the explosives were seized in plain sight which is allowed as valid warrantless searches.

“The first requisite of the plain view doctrine assumes that the law enforcement officer has ‘a prior justification for an intrusion or is in a position from which he can view a particular area’,” the SC explained.

Since Pilapil and his inspection team encountered no mining operations and only found the explosives stored inside a room with its door ajar, the SC pointed out the facts show that “Mayor Pilapil and is inspection team were not in a lawful position when they discovered the subject explosives.”

The high court also pointed out that Republic Act 7610, also known as the Local Government Code of 1991 (LGC), and RA 7942, also known as the Mining Act, does not explicitly authorize mayors to conduct warrantless inspections of mining sites.

“Mining operations in the country are principally regulated by the Mining Act and its RIRR (Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations). As part and parcel of their regulatory thurst, the said act and executive rule did allow the government–through particular agencies or officials, for specific purposes and subject to definite limitations or conditions–to enter and conduct inspections in mining sites and areas. These administrative inspections, duly authorized and reasonably limited by statute and regulation, are examples of inspections sanction by the State in the exercise of its police power, that, as aforementioned, may be considered as among the instances of valid warrantless searches,” it explained.

“As they stand, however, the Mining Act and its RIRR do not confer any authority upon a municipal mayor to conduct any kind of inspection on any mining area or site,” the high tribunal said.