CA declares search, seizure at house of INC leader Manalo’s sibling illegal

THE Court of Appeals (CA) has declared illegal the search and seizure conducted at the house of expelled Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) member Lolita Manalo Hemedez, estranged sister of the religious sect’s executive minister Eduardo Manalo, on March 4, 2017.

In a 16-page decision penned by Associate Justice Mary Charlene V. Hernandez-Azura, the CA’s Fourteenth Division held that “all the seized items are inadmissible as evidence” in the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition case filed against Manalo’s siblings and several others “as they are fruits of the poisonous tree.”

“In the case at bar, it is clear that no search warrant was obtained. Worse, no search warrant was even applied for by the police officers before a judge. Hence, it cannot be said that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses are crucial in determining whether or not the search was legal. What took place was outright illegal,” the CA declared.

Thus, the CA granted the motions to suppress evidence filed by petitioners Felix Nathaniel “Angel” Villanueva Manalo, his nephew Victor Eraño “Jem” Jonathan Ledesma, Manalo Hemedez, Jojo Indek Moreno, Miriam Sanchez Moreno and Errol Gerolaga Sumait.

The items allegedly seized during the conduct of the search and seizure which include 74 various firearms, 46 magazines, 17,491 rounds of ammunition and 89 explosives, according to the ruling,  “are excluded for being fruits of the poisonous tree.”

The appellate court’s decision reversed and set aside the orders dated March 1, 2019, June 28, 2019, December 27, 2019 and March 11, 2020 issued by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon City which denied the motions of the petitioners to suppress evidence seeking the exclusion of the evidence obtained from the illegal search.

It can be recalled that on March 2, 2017, a search and seizure operation was conducted by police officers at the house of Felix inside the INC’s compound located at Tandang Sora Street in Quezon City pursuant to search warrant issued by the QC RTC Branch 106.

After the conduct of inquest proceedings, a case for illegal possession of firearms and ammunition under Republic Act 10591 (An Act Providing for a Comprehensive Law on Firearms and ammunition and Providing Penalties for Violations…) was filed against Felix and his nephew and another for direct assault with frustrated murder was filed against Ledesma.

These criminal cases are  now being tried by QC RTC Branch 216.

Two days after the search in Felix’s house, the Philippine National Police (PNP) received a call reporting that the guard-on-duty at the compound discovered a hidden room containing assorted firearms, ammunition and explosives inside the house of Lolita.

Acting on the information, the PNP proceeded to the subject premises, which was adjacent to Felix’s house and seized the seized items.

After the conduct of preliminary investigation, the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office issued a resolution finding probable cause to charge the petitioners for violation of Section 1 of Republic Act 9516 (An Act Further Amending the Provisions of Presidential Decree No. 1866, as Amended, Entitled “Codifying the Laws on Illegal/Unlawful Possession, Manufacture, Dealing In, Acquisition or Disposition of Firearms, Ammunition or Explosives….).

This was consolidated with other criminal cases filed against the petitioners in relation to the search and seizure operations conducted in Felix’s house and its premises.

In granting the petition, the CA held that the trial court committed grave abuse of discretion in not declaring the search and seizure conducted on the said premises illegal and the evidence obtained as a result of the operation inadmissible.

It noted the petitioners were neither caught during the act of a crime nor was there an urgency shown by the police officers to warrant a warrantless search and seizure.

The CA also did not give credence to the argument of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) that search and seizure conducted at the said premises was legal because the secret room was found therein was accidentally discovered by private individuals who called the police officers.

“In this regard, the OSG is incorrect. Nowhere in the records can it be surmised that the police officers had no ample time to secure a warrant. In the first place, the petitioners were already in detention at the time of the discovery of the seized items. Second, there was no physical hindrance that would prevent them from securing the area. Lastly, the police officers did not proffer any evidence that there was urgency in conducting a search and seizure without any search warrant,” the CA explained.

The actions of the police officers, according to the CA, violated Lolita’s constitutional rights under Article III Section which provides, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”

The feud among the members of the Manalo family erupted in 2015 over an alleged attempt to oust Eduardo as INC’s leader by some of its senior members, including his siblings.