Visitorial powers and search warrant

As the sugar importation controversy unravels, more legal questions come to the fore. When do we need a search warrant? Can visitorial powers prevent smuggling or hoarding activities? How different is a visitorial power from a warrantless search or seizure?

But first, let us recognize the government’s intensified efforts to resolve the ongoing sugar crisis and neutralize smuggling and hoarding incidences. President Marcos Jr. persuaded supermarket chain owners to slash the retail price of this prime commodity by P30 per kilo from a high of P100. He also revoked Sugar Order 4, which would have imported 300,000 metric tons of sugar during the harvest season in the Philippines. These developments are a welcome relief to both consumers and local farmers.

Recently, the Bureau of Customs intercepted alleged contraband of 7,000 metric tons of sugar from a ship from Thailand at the Port of Subic in Zambales. I have seen a certification from the Sugar Regulatory Administration, which is supposed to make the importation legal. However, the BoC said the import permit for the said shipment appears to have been “recycled” from an old allocation. Since I am not privy to the specifics of this case, I leave it to the government to continue its investigation.

Nevertheless, the foiled smuggling incident highlighted the visitorial powers of Customs agents. According to the Customs and Tariff Administration Act (Republic Act 10863), the BoC has the power to pursue vessels and aircraft that have violated this law within and beyond Philippine territorial waters and airspace.

Section 301, Chapter 2 of the Customs Jurisdiction and Customs Control provides that “all goods, including means of transport, entering or leaving the customs territory, regardless of whether they are liable to duties and taxes, shall be subject to customs control.”

Agents acting on intelligence reports can make warrantless seizures of imported items transported by land, air, and water. They can inspect or detain any transport vehicle, particularly vehicles suspected of carrying smuggled items. This would ensure that importers pay the correct duties and tariffs.

On the other hand, the BoC also joined other government operatives in making a surprise visit to warehouses allegedly hoarding sugar in Bulacan and Pampanga. In San Jose del Monte City alone, these law enforcers discovered an estimated 30,000 sacks of sugar in two warehouses said to be owned by a Filipino-Chinese businessman. The owner also reportedly did not possess the necessary SRA permit.

To this day, not a single case has been filed against the said warehouse owner.

Understandably, the case is still under investigation. Perhaps, the Customs agents have yet to determine whether there was indeed imported sugar among the seized items. In the absence of imported sugar, they cannot invoke the Customs Tariff Act.

What is applicable is the Price Act (RA 7851), which protects consumers through price stabilization of basic necessities and prime commodities. It also prescribes measures against undue price increment particularly during emergency situations. Provided that the government’s surprise inspection was covered by a search warrant, based on a personal determination for probable cause by a court judge.

The presumption for probable cause lies in Section 5 or Illegal Acts of Price Manipulation of the law. “There shall be prima facie evidence of hoarding when a person has stocks of any basic necessity or prime commodity 50 percent higher than his usual inventory and unreasonably limits, refuses or fails to sell the same to the general public at the time of the discovery of the excess.”

Government authorities need a search warrant to enforce the Price Act, which penalizes hoarding and other illegal activities. The visitorial powers may enable them to conduct a raid on local warehouses that hoard imported goods such as sugar. However, a warrantless search or seizure is not admissible for any purpose, especially in a court of law. The 1987 Constitution is very clear on this.

Under the Bill of Rights, Section 2: “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.”

Clearly, there is a distinction between the need for a search warrant and otherwise when enforcing a specific law on imported goods. Should the BoC and other government operatives apply the Customs and Tariff Administration law, a visitorial power through a Letter of Authority or Mission Order would suffice. Meanwhile, a search warrant is required if they enforce the Price Act. Without this, cases cannot be filed against hoarders, profiteers, and cartels in any court of law.

Again, we commend the government’s swift action against sugar smugglers and hoarders. We are one with PBBM in protecting the interests of local farmers and Filipino consumers.

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