Miyerkules, Marso 14, 2012

Whether a valid search and seizure (random search) may go through the contents of one’s laptop largely depends on the surrounding facts of the case.

               Zones of privacy are recognized and protected in our laws. Within these zones, any form of intrusion is impermissible unless excused by law and in accordance with customary legal process. The meticulous regard we accord to these zones arises not only from our conviction that the right to privacy is a “constitutional right” and “the right most valued by civilized men,” but also from our adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which mandates that, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy” and “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

         Our Bill of Rights, enshrined in Article III of the Constitution, provides at least two guarantees that explicitly create zones of privacy. It highlights a person’s “right to be let alone” or the “right to determine what, how much, to whom and when information about himself shall be disclosed.”

          Section 2 states "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." Section 3 states: "(1) The privacy of communication and correspondence shall be inviolable except upon lawful order of the court, or when public safety or order requires otherwise as prescribed by law. (2) Any evidence obtained in violation of this or the preceding section shall be inadmissible for any purpose in any proceeding."

        In evaluating a claim for violation of the right to privacy, a court must determine whether a person has exhibited a reasonable expectation of privacy and, if so, whether that expectation has been violated by unreasonable government intrusion.[1]

            Whether a valid search and seizure (random search) may go through the contents of one’s laptop largely depends on the surrounding facts of the case—the circumstances which caused the implementation of the search and seizure. Hence, Article III, Section 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution enshrining the right to privacy of correspondence does not work as a blanket prohibition against all kinds of search and seizure.

          One premise where a valid search and seizure, whether with warrant or not as the case may be, not considered inimical to a person’s right to privacy of correspondence is that directed against impending terrorism attacks wherein thorough inspection of personal belongings, specifically one’s laptop, may be allowed. As provided for by:

Section 7. Surveillance of suspects and interception and recording of communications. The provisions of RA 4200 (Anti-Wiretapping Law) to the contrary notwithstanding, a police or law enforcement official and the members of his team may, upon a written order of the Court of Appeals, listen to, intercept and record, with the use of any mode, form or kind or type of electronic or other surveillance equipment or intercepting and tracking devices, or with the use of any other suitable ways or means for that purpose, any communication, message, conversation, discussion, or spoken or written words between members of a judicially declared and outlawed terrorist organization, association, or group of persons or of any person charged with or suspected of the crime of terrorism or conspiracy to commit terrorism.[2]

Applying the law, the search and seizure of a laptop to be able to gather information pertinent to terrorism by going through its contents is an exceptional situation wherein the right to privacy of correspondence may be validly breached. It is but a logical act to go through the contents of such laptop because it is only through such inspection wherein relevant information related to terrorism may successfully be revealed. Without such inspection, the laptop as a potential, strong evidence might only be put into futility.  

Following the line of thought above, only those instances where going through the contents of a laptop is reasonable under the circumstances of a given case does a person’s right to privacy of correspondence not unjustly violated. Another example would be the search and seizure of persons highly-suspected of engaging in child pornography activities. Of course, it is only rational that the contents of the laptop may be examined to be able to look for evidence. 

Another premise where a search and seizure, although valid, works to the detriment of a person’s right to privacy of correspondence happens when the scrutiny of his laptop’s contents is not reasonable to his alleged case. For instance, when a search and seizure is implemented due to an intelligence report regarding his illegal possession of firearms. Obviously, going through the contents of the laptop is absurd, thus an unreasonable search and seizure results and the person’s right to privacy of correspondence unjustly violated.

[1] Camilo l. Sabio vs. Gordon, G.R. No. 174340,  October 17, 2006,  504 SCRA 704.
[2] Human Security Act/Anti-Terrorism Law, Republic Act No. 9372, Approved on March 6, 2007 and effective on July 15, 2007.

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