“My lawyer training tells me we should be safe. The constitution says so.” Lawyer-entrepreneur Benj Aritao pens an open letter discussing our constitutional protections and the limits of police power and protocol.
I woke up one day to a Facebook post of a friend from Dasmariñas Village. It read: “We are not safe in our homes.”
We have seen the viral videos and gone on the seesaw ride. First, we saw the video drawing sympathy for the resident and then we all saw another video drawing sympathy for the police officer.
With everyone at home, a huge online debate ensued. Some defended the cop, others decried the cop. All are disgusted by the foreigner’s behavior.
Lawyers are aghast for another reason. We see something horrific unfolding. There’s a gnawing, growing ignorance or indifference to constitutional protections.
The debate is riveting and horrifying as all weighed in on the issue of the cop, the resident and the maid. Yet, even as the cop potentially walked all over constitutional protections, nobody talks about that. It’s boring, academic and you fill in the blanks with every other synonym for boring you can think of.
Events like this slowly chip away at constitutional protections and while the damage is unfolding right before us, few see it and fewer understand how it affects our lives in a real way.
My friend’s Facebook post expresses the emotion well: “We are not safe in our homes.” But my lawyer training tells me we should be safe. The constitution says so. Then, it becomes clearer to me that our constitutional protections will only work if we collectively know and enforce them. Police cannot enter private property without a warrant. Police cannot arrest you without a warrant. There are some exceptions, yes, but we cannot start with the exception. Those are complicated and we should let the courts decide.
I fear that the erosion of constitutional protections may become systemic under the shadow of the coronavirus panic. Not too long ago, there was the incident at Pacific Plaza and now, at Dasmariñas Village. When the heads of the police force discuss the Pacific Plaza incident, the constitutional issue sounds like barely a footnote: “The police should not enter private property.” Then, the police force proceeds to justify the acts of the police officers and files various cases against the violations within private property. I think to myself, “Why didn’t they just file cases first?”
I commented on the Facebook post about the Dasmariñas Village incident: “The cop was out of line.” Someone replies: “Finally.” I was trying to inject the constitutional issue.
While we are all distracted by the terrible behavior of the foreigner, we also gloss over the effect regular citizens (and yes, even Facebook debates) have on the constitution. Other cops are watching and taking note, and will perhaps make future decisions based on how they observe this incident as well as the reactions to it. We need to join the chorus of saying that it’s not okay. Where is the outcry? Is it silent because the guy “deserved it” or “had it coming?”
Yet another viral video showed a fish vendor in Quezon City being beaten up and taken into custody by what appeared to be officers. The officers explained why: The person was consistently resisting the officers’ reminders to follow the rules. So he also deserved it and had it coming? The officers decided to arrest the allegedly illegal vendor and when the vendor resisted, they beat him into submission. So, again, same question: if they knew where to find him and what he was doing, why was there no warrant obtained first? Why pick him up and drag him out based on their own judgment?
With the growing police presence due to the varying degrees of community quarantine, it is important now more than ever to discuss the limits of police power. We also need to protect our police officers from making mistakes that can bring about disciplinary action. Police officers are protected if they first obtain warrants and act in obedience to a warrant. If they arrest and/or enter private property without warrants, they risk their careers and our constitutional protections along with it.
The constitution is not a mythical book with its own power. The power comes from us and if we don’t protect it, the power fades. If a cop knocks on your door, you would hope that each of your neighbors is familiar with the general rule and will join you in asking and pleading: “Where’s the warrant? Please come back with a warrant.”
The role of every citizen in upholding the Constitution cannot be overstated at this time.
No less than a judge may issue a warrant (and decide on whether a person’s liberty can be taken away). Even prosecutors are not allowed to issue warrants. For limited reasons such as to protect life and property, warrantless arrests are allowed but only as an exception.
While the fate of the infamous Dasmariñas Village foreigner is something we may wonder about, it is ultimately his own problem, and it doesn’t affect us so widely as the fate of the police officer. If we say that what the cop did is okay with us because the “guy deserved it,” then we are saying it’s okay for the police officer to decide if we deserve it, when they come to our homes. We should not be okay with that. We have well-trained prosecutors and judges who can guide the police officers and make that difficult decision.
We should all somehow connect to the incident because the resident (no matter how foul-mouthed and intoxicated) was at home, he wasn’t going anywhere. In a place and time where words like “hot pursuit” and “warrantless arrest” seem misplaced, those are the technical justifications presented. Ultimately the courts will decide, but know that that decision will affect us all in a very real way.
What will happen to us if we are drinking at home and a cop knocks on our door while we are intoxicated? What will happen if we lose our cool and feel we need to defend ourselves with strong and maybe even unintelligible words against a cop who we disagree with?
Is it okay for him to throw us to the ground?
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